Tag Archives: year A

Holy Week in Year B (Jorgenson18)

Root from Dry Ground – Kiara Jorgenson reflects on the themes of water in the Holy Week texts.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Years A, B, and C 

Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10], 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:42

Maundy Thursday

In, with, and under—those are the prepositions we Lutherans use to describe the sacramental. God’s presence is in, with, and under the elements—the Lamb of Exodus 12, the wine and bread of 1 Corinthians 11, and the water of John 13. The presence of God is sacred, of course, but per the Greek concept itself, μυστήριον, the sacraments are also a mystery.

When teaching and preaching on the Sacraments we often focus on the mystery of Christ’s presence, the historical, ever-relevant theological debate surrounding finitum non capax infiniti, namely, whether the finite is capable of bearing the infinite. Indeed, those of us preparing students to take their first communion on Maundy Thursday have likely addressed this in some way or another. What, we may rhetorically ask as of such 8-year olds, is actually happening when you take the bread and drink of the juice?

However, in our efforts to understand how God shows Godself vis à vis finite means, we pay little attention to how the earthly, elemental things of life prove necessary in any and all quests to encounter God. Knowledge of God, limited though it may be, is always obtained through the embodied, the sensorial—the stuff of creation. In this sense, it isn’t so much that we Christians have respective theological doctrines such as creation and redemption (or to use the Apostle’s Creed as a model: 1st Article/2nd Article distinctions), but more so that all Christian theology is fundamentally earthbound and creaturely.

In Exodus 12 the Israelites require a lamb to participate in the enactment of God’s protection, just as they require the lamb in the perpetual observance of the Passover. The lamb is not merely a symbol, it is the means through which God is known. Likewise, the water of John 13 is integral to Christ’s model of sacrificial love for its clear symbolic connection to baptism and for its palpable role in preparing one to be spiritually washed. The necessity of water is emphasized in Christ’s own anointing in John 12, wherein He like all monarchs of the day must be cleaned by the elements prior to assuming his reign as King.

The lamb, the water, the bread, and the wine have an integrity of their own. They exist not for theological reasons, but in spite of them. And yet, human encounter of the Divine is dependent upon one’s relationship with earth, water, creature, fruit, and grain. Our very bodies are indeed porous; we breathe in the air around us, we drink the water available to us. The world inscribes itself in us. We hyper-dependent humans are therefore called to relationships of integrity, a matter that brings new light to the penitential nature of Maundy Thursday.

Good Friday

Elemental themes loom large in the Good Friday texts as well. As is well known, the Isaiah text explicitly links Christ to the lamb—the One afflicted by our infirmity and hence cut off from life. Harkening to the root of Jesse, Christ is also compared to a young plant that with utter resilience grows mightily in a dry and barren land. Lacking in majesty, this plant reveals life in hidden ways. Here again, the power of or powerful absence of water begs our attention.

The famous messianic psalm underscores this theme. The oppressed one is “poured out like water” its “mouth dried up like a potsherd,” tongue sticking to the jaws (Psalm 2214-15). And yet, as our present-day anthropocenic circumstances demonstrate, human bodies number a mere fraction of today’s oppressed bodies. To this end, what might it look like to read the subject of this psalm as Earth itself? Who then are the “dogs,” the gloating ones dividing and taking for one’s own?

The presence of water carries forth in the Hebrews text and Gospel reading, although in John its presence in these chapters seems to take on a different meaning. In his thirst Christ is not offered the pure water so mentioned by the author of Hebrews. Instead, he is offered sour wine, a far cry from the fine wine Jesus created of water at the wedding in Cana wherein his ministry commenced. And we are told that when pierced in the side water flowed with the blood, a sign that according to ancient physiology would have indicated imminent death. So, whereas earlier in the Gospel water flowing from the Christ’s belly indicated life (John 7:37-39), here it assures death. Had water alone flowed from Jesus’ abdomen, ancients would have perceived Christ to be “a blessed immortal,” not unlike the God’s of Alexander’s day (see Plutarch, Moralia 180E; 341B). But the presence of water with the blood paradoxically presents divine power through human death. Again, the elemental proves necessary in a true encounter with creaturely Christ.

And yet, the reality is that communities from high-consuming contexts like the U.S. continue to crucify the Earth, as well as many already-vulnerable human populations, with our insatiable greed, ignorance, and complacency. When it comes to water, we’ve been warned:

“By 2020, 180 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under water stressed conditions.” UN Water Fact Sheet

What might this reality mean for persons’ ongoing experience of God? We preachers must remember that well water and living water, matter and spirit (to use a less-than-helpful longstanding binary), are all part of the same flow. Water for living and living waters depend on one another inextricably. Hence, to lift high the themes of water in these Holy Week texts requires honest discussion on (or at least reference to) contemporary environmental realities and an opportunity to revisit the baptismal promises spoken over us, a willingness to reject sin and choose life.

Originally written by Kiara Jorgenson in 2018.

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Utphall21)

God’s Plan –  Nick Utphall reflects on the order(s) of the universe and a baby.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Second Sunday of Christmas, Years A,  B, and C 

Jerimiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12 
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21 
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

“What has come into being in him was life…but [they] did not accept him” (John 1:3-4, 11).

We’ve spent months explicitly close to and aware of the sense of not accepting what makes for life. It has been a persistent reiterated theme of the pandemic. How many times have you been told to wash your hands? Remember nine months ago when you were constantly told to sing happy birthday twice to fulfill the proper precaution? And how much has that continued to influence your practice? Or consider recommendations from Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. Coronavirus Task Force member and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that are repeated ad nauseum on social media about the beneficial health impacts of mask-wearing. All of that eager-emphasizing of a simple and yet possibly life-saving practice seems not to do any good in convincing those who would resist and rebel. Or, to dig a bit deeper, we recognize that the long-trending erosion in our funding of public health infrastructure leaves us closer to death. We end up not accepting life that is right in front of us, practically begging for us to understand.

Those might seem like an echo of the line from the Prologue to the Gospel of John.

As we’re considering that, I suggest we don’t fall into a ditch on either side. There are plenty of examples and instances portraying faith and science antagonistically, as opposed to each other, with a big VS between in the fight. But on the other side, there is also the risk of making faith and science synonymous, equating them with each other. Following Jesus is not identical to following health guidance, nor is the coming of life the same as the arrival of a vaccine. The Gospel of John will go on to convey that life is not just a biological characteristic, not just having a pulse, not a prescription for an exercise regimen, not a doctor’s visit for a clean bill of health. Death is not the end or absence of life, not a failure. Even through death, still there is something of life.

That means that some of the knee-jerk reactions in the face of this pandemic need to be held faithfully and not simplistically or secularly. Faith is neither so separate from health guidance that we ignore it because life and safety are assured by Christianity, nor is faith so combined with science that obeying protocols to keep the coronavirus at bay mean we’re living faithfully.

To glimpse this through another lens, this is the first Sunday of a new year. It’s a new year for which people have been especially yearning and wishing. But, of course, there is nothing that magically changes with turning to a calendar page that restarts simply because it now is labeled “2021.” There is no finish line or lap marker in earth’s orbit around the sun. It is arbitrary. On the other hand, this isn’t the start of a new year for church. This finds us in the 2nd Sunday of Christmas. And in some way while much of the world has moved on, we are still celebrating the 10th day of this short season, marking not a default reset attitude of January but what a certain birth long ago means, what that change and reset meant for our world to have God born among us, as the Word became flesh.

The reading from Ephesians marks this epochal distinction as “the fullness of time” (1:10). That phrase is paired with one of the passages that point us to a notion of the “cosmic Christ,” that God’s plan is to “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). If all things are gathered in Christ, that includes calendars and masks and anti-maskers and COVID-19 deaths and disturbed Christmas traditions…as well as, of course, the orbit of planets and expansion of the universe and light and dark and sheep and storms and irrigated gardens and wilderness areas.

The impact of Jesus includes but far exceeds wellness tips for living. It includes but is not limited by scientific understanding. It ranges far beyond what we know of life.

There’s an old book by J.B. Phillips called “Your God is Too Small.” I’ve not read it and cannot comment on the approach or contents, but the title alone is applicable with today’s readings. God is not restricted to our pet projects, neither about morality or physical fitness. God isn’t out to save a few individual souls who have conformed to a religious framework. God isn’t conveying blessings that are about us having an easier day, feeling more satisfied and happier, making a profit.

The immensely unbelievable import of our faith is that God has been working for you to be brought up into all of God’s pleasure and love and goodness since “the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), “in the beginning” (John 1:1), since creation began, since the Big Bang or whatever came before that. How can we imagine or begin to conceive of that? How can we get on board with implications of this vision of life that out-stretch all spacetime?

Some of that is the sense of the organizing principle for all creation – the Logos, the Sophia, the Wisdom of God that is mentioned in these readings. That’s especially the theme of the alternate first reading from Sirach, of Wisdom herself (also as a spoken word/Word in 24:3) that preexists and is beyond all the created order.

That logic of God’s Wisdom in the alternate psalmody from Wisdom sees a goal of exodus and freeing God’s people from slavery and oppression. There is a guiding plan that the weak and injured and disabled are not lacking life or left to die, but rather are especially singled out to be brought along, and that includes helpless infants and their vulnerable and anguishing mothers (Wisdom 10:21 and Jeremiah 31:8).

With a nod to the awareness that the Logos underlies all our studies and –ologies, there’s been a sense for a couple hundred years of the so-called Enlightenment defining our perceptions of zoology and biology (“life” studies) and even cosmology. We subscribe to a saying that nature is “red in tooth and claw” (in words from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson), with survival of the fittest. Now, first of all, if we’re looking at evidence around us and thinking that is the order of things, the planned logic of creation, then either that makes God our Creator a brute or else it plain doesn’t square with a Lord who came as a frail baby, who was willing to die on the cross, emptying himself in love, in which case nature would (as the old poet had it) “shriek against [the] creed” for those “who trusted God was love indeed.”

So how do we compare our scientific and natural understandings of competitive and violent predator/prey perspectives with what our Bible readings today tell us is God’s order and plan and Wisdom, which binds up the broken and cares for tiny children and seeks not to leave any behind?

Maybe we at least need to be willing to incorporate the sort of understanding and wisdom that comes from Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” or Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass,” which identify how species cooperate and thrive by symbiosis (living together) and practice mutual sustenance, and how even trees may share with the weaker and needier.

Or maybe such conflicting accounts merely confuse us on God’s intended order of things, obscuring rather than elucidating our studies and logic. Are volcanoes and forest fires creative or destructive? Is a lightning storm a sign of God’s violent power or life-giving potential in fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere? If God intends to give snow and cold (Psalm 147:16-17), is winter a time of stark, severe lifelessness or a moment of preparation and continuance of life? Or should we not try to categorize in binaries of good/bad, either/or?

If that can indicate the challenge of trying to discern God’s Wisdom and not being stuck with a God who is too small, then the next part of the paradoxical challenge is that we also strive to make our God too big, where the Prologue of John very specifically wants us to zero in on a small God, a God who is maybe about eight pounds when his diapers aren’t wet, a God who is not far beyond our finite comprehensions but is very locally contained to a crib in Nazareth.

Ignoring the scandal of particularity, we constantly go searching off to discover and peel back divine masks, making our own efforts at apocalypse (revealing, unveiling) of the mystery of God (Ephesians 1:9), conjuring our self-made spiritual fantasies, all the while creating God in our image. But much more mysterious is that this proclaims it is only Jesus, God the Son, who makes God known to us; the rest we simply cannot see (John 1:18). Are we willing to accept that the truth of God’s mystery and its impact on our existence has been or is being made known to us in Jesus, as a baby and on through his life and death?

For me, as much as I love studying and learning science and noticing these connections, at the heart I need to cherish that this is not about my understanding or acceptance, but is that we’ve been chosen (Ephesians 1:3), given the Holy Spirit (1:13), a pledge to be brought along in redemption with God’s people (1:14) and all those things in heaven and on earth. Toward the end, I trust that the one who is close to God’s bosom (John 1:18 in the closer and more maternal translation) also brings us into that proximity, that intimacy of love and life.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2021. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

Second Sunday of Christmas in Years A, B, and C (Ormseth12)

Giving, Receiving, and Giving Again Dennis Ormseth reflects on the fullness of God.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Christmas, All Years 

Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-2
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

With the texts for the Second Sunday of Christmas, the bells of Christmas ring out green themes yet one more time. The salvation for which we praise God here at the end of the Christmas season is decidedly ‘down to earth.” The repetition of the reading of the prologue to John’s Gospel from Christmas Day underscores the deeply incarnational character of God saving work (see our comments on the readings for those days). But there are a couple of new notes to the music here in these texts. In the first place, if human beings have a vocation to care for Earth, they show that non-human creatures in turn have a vocation of care for the humans (see Terry Fretheim’s discussion of “The Vocation of the Nonhuman” in his God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 278-284). The psalm praises God for the extraordinary care he shows to the people of Israel, in granting peace within their borders and directing the powers of nature so to fill them with ”the finest of wheat.” The prophet Jeremiah looks forward to the return of the people to the land, when “they shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden and they shall never languish again.”

Nonetheless, it is God’s restoration of the human vocation in Christ that evokes the final praise of the season. Some did not know him, John reminds us, and some still do not receive him. But those who receive him and believe in his name are empowered to live as children of God. Indeed, “he destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” This was God’s plan for the fullness of time, our second reading from Ephesians suggests, “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10.)

The accent in both the reading from Ephesians and the reading in the Gospel is on “fullness,” the pleroma: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Commentators seem reticent to instruct their readers as to the meaning of this pleroma, the term occurring singularly here in John, and only somewhat more frequently in Pauline literature. It clearly has to do with the giving and receiving of gifts, activity inherent in the event Christmas celebrates (and reflected more or less appropriately in the characteristic practices of the celebration), and prompts the following theological reflection.

In his book on “The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetic of Christian Truth,” David Bentley Hart describes the gift of God within the Trinitarian narrative in a manner that possibly illuminates the meaning of pleroma. “In the Trinity,” he writes,

“the gift is entire, and entirely ‘exposed’:  The Father gives himself to the Son, and again to the Spirit, and the Son offers everything up to the Father in the Spirit, and the Spirit returns all to the Father through the Son, eternally. Love of, the gift to, and delight in the other is one infinite dynamism of giving and receiving, in which desire at once beholds and donates the other.”

This infinite dynamism of giving and receiving, we would suggest, is the “fullness” from which we have received “grace upon grace,”—that is, we would additionally interpolate, the grace of redemption in Christ upon the grace of creation. Creation, Hart explains,

“is always already implicated in this giving of the gift because it is—in being inaugurated by the Father, effected by the Son, and perfected by the Spirit—already a gift shared among the persons of the Trinity, in transit, a word spoken by God in his Word and articulated in endless sequences of difference by the Spirit and offered back to the Father. . . . Creation is, before all else, given by God to God, and only then—through the pneumatological generosity of the Trinitarian life—given to creatures: a gift that is only so long as it is given back, passed on, received and imparted not as a possession but always as grace. “

Creatures participate in this “infinite circle of God’s love” simply by being creatures. As such, it is “all but impossible for them not also to give, not to extend signs of love to others, not to donate themselves entirely to the economy of agape.” Only when the gift is actively withheld is it not given, and this “suppression of the gift” is sin. There is, however, the knowledge that in God “nothing is lost and the substance of hope lies in the knowledge that God has given—and will give—again” (p. 268).

Thus, we conclude that the divine “fullness of grace and truth” is ample enough to embrace and enfold the cosmic fullness of “all things,” which are to be gathered into Christ “in the fullness of time,” “things in heaven and things on earth.” God’s infinite grace is inexhaustible, and allows no final limitation by any creaturely categories, sexual, ethnic, political, nor even the most basic differentiations of living creatures, the being of species, and the non-living physical creation. The significance of this fullness of grace for both the human and the non-human vocations lifted up in these readings is this: if non-human creatures participate in the divine circle of love by naturally fulfilling their vocation of service to humans, then humankind’s refusal of its vocation of care for the non-human creation does interrupt the dynamism of giving and receiving. But that refusal will not stand. It cannot bring that dynamism of God’s fullness to a complete halt, not with respect to any creature, considered in terms of either its corporate or its individual reality (See Christopher Southgate’s discussion of human and non-human “selving” and “heaven for pelicans” in his The Groaning of Creation). God’s giving and receiving and giving again of creation is finally not to be denied.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Christmas Eve and Day (Nativity of Our Lord) in Year A (Ormseth10)

A Light Shining in the Darkness – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common

Lectionary Readings for Christmas Eve (2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Psalm 96
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

Readings for Christmas Day 

Psalm 97 or 98
Isaiah 62:6-12 or 52:7-10
Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14 (5-12)
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

Introduction

The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share, namely,  that “all the Earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Nativity of Our Lord here, and for the First Sunday of Christmas subsequently, is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? Answers to this question, it is significant to note, have been anticipated in our comments on the lections for the Season of Advent, the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent especially.  As we shall see, first the good news for Earth in the message of Mary’s Magnificat, is developed fulsomely in the Lukan birth narrative; and, secondly, the affirmations regarding creation we found in the Annunciation story from the Fourth Sunday of Advent are richly celebrated in the lections for Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve

“O sing to the lord a new song;
sing to the lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (96:11-12). We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is in the contrasting metaphors of light and darkness. As we noted in comments on Isaiah 7:10-16, the first reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the “darkness” in which people walk, is the “distress and hunger” they experienced looking out on the devastated Earth in a time of warfare between the nations. That is to say, the metaphor of “darkness” refers to more than a spiritual or moral condition; it points to the lived experience when the physical landscape has been disordered and its productivity destroyed by human sinfulness. So also with regard to the contrasting image of “the light.” Here the prospects for the people are reversed. As the nation is multiplied, the people rejoice as at the harvest. The people are freed from oppression; and the boots of the ‘tramping warriors” and all the bloodied garments of war are to be burned. The birth of a child initiates a lasting reign of peace with justice and righteousness. The cessation of violent destruction, coupled with the fulfillment of life as embodied in the promised reign of a wise and gracious king. All of this comprises the “light shining in the darkness.”

Borg and Crossan develop the parallel passage from darkness to light exhibited in Luke’s story of Christmas, reading it within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.”

The false character of this imperial peace is suggested, however, by how the Roman legions enforced that peace in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest: “either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. ‘They make a desert and call it peace.’” Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been told the story of this destruction by his mother Mary, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared.

Contrast this “darkness’ with the “light” of Luke’s story. The night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory.”

As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one who turns the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—with the singing trees making up the chorus!

Christmas Day

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, “for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Again today the church employs nature’s praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our introduction on the readings for the Nativity of our Lord, above). And again our question is: What exactly gives rise to nature’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

In the readings for Christmas Eve, the contrasting metaphors of light and darkness provided the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. The metaphor of a marriage covenant provides the link for these readings for Christmas Day: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. (Isaiah 62:4). This verse is not actually part of the assigned scripture. It would be helpful to include it for the liturgical reading, since it provides the premise for what follows. The land clearly benefits from this covenant between God and the people of Israel. There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-9). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized“(p. 196)Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day share this premise, and extend the scope of the significance of Christmas. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: The Word that is from the beginning, is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “God becomes a human being and in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online.)

So yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for both the human and non-human creatures. In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2010.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

 

Christmas Eve (Nativity of Our Lord) in Years A, B, and C (Utphall20)

Displaced and Found by God –  Nick Utphall reflects on the place of baby Jesus in a pandemic.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Christmas Eve (Nativity of Our Lord), Years A, B, and C

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

At worship planning in early November, some members of my congregation raised the idea of renting a barn for our Christmas Eve worship services. Here in Wisconsin, some location that could offer a little shelter from the cold of the night probably seemed like a good idea. And maybe the ambience was intended as much as the practicality.

In this year of the pandemic, we prepare to celebrate Christmas with physical distancing at the very least and perhaps many other alterations to Christmas traditions. I’ve also been hearing about drive-thru living nativities and candle delivery routes. My uncle’s congregation got a grant so that their barn worship could also have heaters and porta-potties. Not quite the cozy feel of a congregation in their usual church building, dressed up around Christmas trees with an organ softly playing Silent Night!

While many are lamenting that Christmas this year will not be what it should be, I can’t help but reflect that maybe it’s more meaningful this year and grounding for us. More meaningful not in a we-really-cherish-it-extra kind of way for finding more appreciation in the loss. More meaningful because somehow it seems closer to its origins, to a night in the little town of Bethlehem when a baby was born, and in that we came to understand God with us.

Those ideas of worshipping in a barn aren’t just because it can be outdoors and we might be able to gather more safely with our aerosols and droplets dispersed. A barn was the natal place (or, more accurately, probably one of the limestone caves around Bethlehem, where shepherds could corral their sheep). Even a porta-potty is fancier than those origins of human life mixing with animal waste. Nicholas Blincoe’s Bethlehem: Biography of a Town reminds us that the village was barely a rural outpost, a crossroads for livestock more than offering human population or resources or culture. The location was less about what it WAS than about what it WASN’T. And it is there, to just such a place, that our attentions are turned when we observe Christmas.

In the central point of the festival of the Incarnation, our God comes to be with us. It is worth celebrating with all the cheer and gladness we can muster. Certainly that can be reveled with fancy clothes and joyous gatherings and offering cheery gifts. But it is far from dependent on that. Just the opposite.

Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of life-as-it-should-not-be, times of loss and death. That is precisely when we need a counselor and bringer of peace (Isaiah 9:7). Miracles aside, even a birth, a child born for us can be a sign of new beginnings, of God’s continuous work on behalf of life, a marker that it is not the end, no matter how bad things are.

Jesus was born in a time of oppressive forces, forcing behaviors and practices that wouldn’t have otherwise been chosen. This year, we may feel confined at home, restricted in what we can do. Joseph and Mary, similarly, were restricted, but in their case it meant they couldn’t stay home and had to travel. Oppressive reality may be an empire or it may be a contagion; either way still impacts our ordinary lives.

And when the baby Jesus arrived, it’s good to remember it wasn’t in a cozy birth suite. In these days when we hear much about medical systems at a breaking point and elective procedures postponed and not enough doctors and nurses to staff the hospitals, we also know that Mary’s delivery didn’t come with assurances of insurance and ready amenities to care and assist. Maybe we understand something more of her reality.

For our limited gatherings in days where we may not even gather with family and are told not to have guests into our homes to minimize the spread of the virus, we may better recognize circumstances of the ancient lonely birth when the family was not welcomed into anybody’s home but had to make due on their own. Clearly, it was a less than ideal environment.

In this year when all of our standard accretions are swept away, maybe it can offer the opportunity to focus on what is left, then and now.

There isn’t a guest list. There isn’t apparent assistance and aid. There isn’t freedom and ease for what we wish life to be. There aren’t the eventual festivals and crowds and bright lights.

There are sheep. There are stars. There is hardship. There is a child given to us.

God comes to be in our real reality. Not our wishlist reality, our ideal. Not just where everything can feel right and is briefly decorated and dressed up.

Of course, that’s the case in our other real Christmases, too. When baking is a frustration of imperfection and burned edges. When family squabbles and sometimes cries. When arguments don’t just get in the way but define. When songs are off-key. When lights burn out. When somebody is missing. When it doesn’t feel alright. Christmas is never about the ideal, but about the real. Because our God comes for our real lives.

Maybe this year we notice more our need, our longing, our lack.

This is an odd commentary, because it is about the intersection of ancient details with everyday details for life now. I can, then, only comment generally. You’ll observe for yourself and your congregation. But whatever you faithfully and compassionately observe, remember that the need and the lack is not a separation or diversion from what is supposed to be; it is at the very heart of Christmas and why God intends this.

I also hope there is a silver lining, one of those rare pandemic benefits, that as other things are swept away or are not possible, maybe we also notice what remains. There are sheep. There are stars. There is a child given to us. There are parents. There is hay. There are the realities of governments and roads and human life (and maybe essential workers, in those shepherds and the reporters who come to them).

In an example of rare incidents of noticing what remains, I almost never give attention to the psalmody assigned for Christmas. But maybe this is its time. This year, state parks and outdoor activities and enjoyment of nature have found a new and cherished place in our lives. So, again, as other things are cleared away, we might particularly notice in the psalmody a location away from our familiar sanctuaries and cozy living rooms. Here it is broadly proclaimed that all the earth is a special location as God comes to be with us and with all creation. This can be an occasion for us to attend to verses of the Psalm where it is not about our decorations or festivities, but is that all creation has decked itself and leads the hymn of praise.

The lectionary proceeds sequentially through three Psalms for Christmas (the only time it is set up that way).

First, from Psalm 96:

Sing to the LORD a new song;
   sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Let the heavens, and let the earth be glad rejoice;
   let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
   let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
    at your coming, O LORD
    for you come to judge the earth (Psalm 96:1, 11-13)

Second, from Psalm 97:

The Lord reigns!
Let the earth rejoice;
    let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness surround the LORD;
    righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne.
Fire goes before the LORD,
    burning up enemies on every side.
Lightnings light up the world;
    the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
    before the Lord of all the earth.
Light dawns for the righteous,
    and joy for the upright in heart (Psalm 97:1-5, 11).

Finally, from Psalm 98:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
    the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
    let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord,
    who comes to judge the earth (Psalm 98:4, 7-9a).

Or maybe you are ready for Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 98:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive its king;
let ev’ry heart prepare him room
and heav’n and nature sing…
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy.

In a year when we can’t do much of that to which we’re accustomed and with those with whom we’re familiar, maybe we find especially the opportunity to tune our songs and our attention to the joy of the world, joining with fields, rocks, seas, clouds, dawn, sheep, and all of the realities. It is here that God comes to be.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2020. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

Christ the King Sunday in Year A (Ormseth)

We are the sheep of God’s pasture. We are the people of God’s Earth. Dennis Ormseth reflects on  the inclusion of land and water in God’s reign.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Christ the King Sunday (Last Sunday of Pentcost), Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus identifies with “the least of these.”

The long awaited king comes in glory, accompanied by God’s angels. He comes to judge “all the nations”—which includes “all people, Christian, Jews, and Gentiles” He comes as a shepherd, separating out his sheep from the goats, those who follow him in care of the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the ill, and those imprisoned and those who do not follow him. He comes as “the humble, not conquering, king of the triumph.” Indeed, he comes as one who identifies himself with “the least of these,” and now judges on their behalf according to the purposes and authority of his Father (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 493-95).

The sheep have followed Jesus in service to the least.

In themselves, the six actions listed—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison—are, as Carter notes, “traditional (Job 22:6-7; Isaiah 58:6-7; Ezekiel 18:5-9; Tobit 4:16-17; Sirach 7:32-36; Testament of Joseph 1:5-7). Jesus performs them to manifest God’s reign/empire or saving presence in a world of sinful oppression . . . He has taught disciples to perform them as they carry out their mission of manifesting God’s reign/empire.” It is significant that as compared with “dominant cultural practices,” these actions “are nonreciprocal and are concerned for the needs of the other, not the honor and social credit of the giver” (Ibid.  p. 493). Remarkably, Jesus, as the powerful Son of Man, enacts the judgment which involves actions done to Jesus, the suffering servant. The righteous and the unrighteous alike are surprised by this strong identification of the king with the poor. Judgment of the people is based on whether they have taken on his role as their servant. The final verb of the judgment, as Carter notes, is “to take care,” which

“literally means ‘to serve.’ It is the verb by which Jesus sums up the mission of the Son of Man in 20:28 (‘not to be served but to serve’). It denotes actions by angels (4:11), and by women disciples (8:15, giving him food and drink, welcoming him; 27:55). Its cognate noun ‘servant’ names the identity of disciples as a marginal, low-status community in 20:26; 23:11 (cf. 24:45-51; 25; 14-30). The condemned have not lived as disciples. They have not recognized Jesus’ authority over their lives, despite calling him Lord” (cf.7:21-23) (Ibid., p. 497).

Followers of the king who is to be revealed in the remaining chapters of Matthew’s Gospel as the suffering servant of God will follow him in this service, and their service will be vindicated as such in the final judgment. Like those saints identified in our reading from the Sermon on the Mount, they are blessed by Jesus’ Father, and they will inherit the kingdom of God.

The needy have an ecological context, as they have a socio-political context.

Given the finality of this vision and this strong emphasis on the role of the servant, we could wish that care for the non-human creation was among the six actions in which the servant is to be encountered. As we have demonstrated in our comments on the lectionary for Year A, the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is appropriately seen as the Lord, the servant of all Creation. The focus here would seem instead to be exclusively anthropological, typically so, one might lament: once more the needs of the human creature are privileged over those of the non-human creature. This focus is probably unavoidable, however, since the emphasis here is on Jesus: the human Jesus will be present in and among the representative human needy. And, in any case, these needy do have real social, political, and even ecological contexts. As Carter points out, the actions Jesus calls for are directed to meet the very real practical needs of people who were likely to be found

“among the majority (non-elite) population of a city such as Antioch, the likely place of Matthew’s audience. Among the unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions, the uneven and inadequate food and water supply, limited sewage disposal, the epidemics and infections fed by urine, feces, trash, corpses, decay, and insects, and the general misery of poverty, lack, and debt, disciples are to use their limited resources to meet these basic human needs of the poor” (Ibid. p. 495).

Among those needs, in short, are conditions that we would indeed describe today as “environmental,” conditions that impact in every way the quality of the people’s life. The servanthood of Jesus recognized by the righteous encompasses care for neighborhood as well as neighbor, to draw on another metaphor we have encountered in our readings and, finally, for all creation.

Indeed, above all, sheep need land, good pasture!

Attentive listeners to the first lesson read this Sunday will be prepared to receive this more inclusive, ecological understanding of human need. This human Jesus, servant king of the poor, our reading of Ezekiel 34 asserts, is also a shepherd, and indeed, not just any shepherd, but God, the true shepherd who addresses the need of his sheep in comprehensive scope:

As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel (Ezekiel 34:12-14).

In this vision of the prophet Ezekiel, the preeminent need of the sheep, we note, is land: fertile, well-watered mountainsides where they can rest and feed “on rich pasture.”  We have also encountered this metaphor earlier, in the Season of Easter. It’s inclusion here as part of the statement of the church’s eschatological conviction underscores the importance of care of creation in the future witness of the church; if Jesus the Good Shepherd is properly part of the vision of how God will bring all things to conclusion, not only his sheep, but also the pasture in which his sheep graze belongs to that vision.

Note the rest of Ezekiel 34 dealing with pollution.

That being said, we can regret all the more that the appointed reading from Ezekiel 34 does not include verses 17-19. The problem between the sheep, these verses make clear, is that not only do the fat sheep refuse to give place to the lean sheep (“you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide” [v. 20]), but they harm the pasture as well: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?” And they foul the water: “When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?” (v. 18). The point is repeated for emphasis: “And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?” (v. 19). A contemporary analogy comes quickly to mind: the feed lots of industrial agriculture not only foul the air, water, and soil of the pasture, but drive out the environmentally-sensitive, small farmer, who struggles to compete in a market structured to favor the large scale operator. This is a vivid metaphor and very much to the ecological point: there are those who make place for others in which to live; and there are those who do not, who indeed on the contrary lay waste the space that others need for life. Social justice and ecological justice are clearly coupled to each other in this picture. God’s servant David was one of the former; so also, we confess, was Jesus. And so also, our readings insist, shall be those who follow him.

And, the promise of a natural covenant of peace

It will help to bring this insight forward in this Sunday’s sermon, if Ezekiel verses 17-19 are included in the reading, and the reader would do well to extend the reading further to include verses 25-31. The additional verses show why these servants of God do what they do; they do, quite simply, what God does; namely, they serve and keep the garden of Earth:

I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods secure. I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. They shall no more plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid.  I will provide for them a splendid vegetation so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God (Ezekiel 34:25-31).

We are the people of God’s pasture!

Allowing that in biblical ecology the banishment of wild animals does not mean their extermination, but rather their restoration to a place in which they also can live in peace, this covenanting God promises to restore all creatures to their appointed place in the creation. God will sustain them there, in accordance with God’s purposes, in the kingdom prepared “from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). There, we might imagine, they will join the angels of God in the hymn of praise appointed as the psalm for this Sunday—a truly ecologically sensitive hymn, in the view of one commentator (see Arthur Walker-Jones, The Green Psalter:  Resources for an Ecological Spirituality, pp. 135-36). Thus does the year end with all God’s creatures, saints and servants, joining in praise of their Creator and his Servant: “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!” (Psalm 95:6-7).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday November 13-19 in Year A (Ormseth)

Claiming the Future as Precious Gifts of People and Land. Dennis Ormseth reflects on acting boldly for restoration and healing.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday November 13-19, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Zephaniah  1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12
I Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

At first look, the lessons seem to be unrelated to care for creation.

We approach the end of the church year, and our focus is directed by the lectionary towards the end of all time. The scriptures for this Sunday before the festival of Christ the King (The Reign of Christ) bear careful reading, lest care of creation be crushed under the weight of apocalyptic narrative popular in American culture. Zephaniah 1:18, for instance, speaks of a time when “in the fire of [the Lord’s] passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” “Who considers the power of your anger?” the psalmist asks (90:11). And while our second lesson holds out the promise that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” it says nothing about the fate of the non-human creation.

Accordingly, when we hear the Gospel speak of “a worthless slave” who is to be thrown “into the outer darkness,” we are fully ready to throw our lot in with those who pursue the strong “growth strategy” of the first two servants of Jesus’ parable. Obviously, one doesn’t want to have to deal with the anger faced by that fearful, no-growth slacker of the third servant. His economic behavior might be a great thing for Earth’s climate, but that could hardly matter if the whole earth is to be consumed! Since we know not the “times and the seasons” and are “children of the day,” we can “make hay while the sun shines,” so to speak, and enjoy the Lord’s bounty while it lasts.

Fortunately, this total reversal of everything we have come to expect of Christ the Lord, the Servant of Creation, is not the only possible reading of our texts. On the contrary, when read with appropriate attention to the narrative of the Servant of Creation we have uncovered in this year’s lections, these scriptures comprise a fine, penultimate word of encouragement for care of creation.

Injustice among humans and the devastation of the land go together.

The “great day of the Lord” described in our first reading is a place-specific and time-specific day of judgment upon Judah in the “days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah” (Zephaniah 1:1), due to their idolatry (“I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priest”; 1:4) and their sin “against the Lord” (1:17). The people, it seems, have lost their fear of God and disregarded God’s call for justice. They “rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’” The people may have great wealth, but their wealth will not save them: “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.”

The passage thus expresses a theme common to the biblical prophets. As Carol Dempsey puts it in commenting on this chapter from Zephaniah, “Breach of the covenant relationship on the part of human beings reaps repercussions that devastate not only humanity but the natural world as well” (Hope Amid the Ruins:  The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets, p. 87; cf. Terry Fretheim’s discussion of the same theme in Jeremiah, in God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 171-74). As to the scope of this devastation, Dempsey cautions that the Hebrew term ‘eres translates interchangeably as earth” or “land,” and suggests that the more appropriate interpretation “when used in conjunction with the idea of suffering is ‘land’” (Ibid. p. 76-77).

Breaking the covenant results in social injustice and ecological injustice

Our first lesson thus reaffirms points of great importance for the story of the Servant of Creation:  while the reading does not foresee a final, all-encompassing destruction of Earth, it does say that human sinfulness stemming from faithlessness in relationship to God the Creator results in both social injustice and eco-injustice. God’s judgment is worked out in relationships with both humans and the creation more comprehensively. The reading should give us cause to tremble: We do not know the times and seasons, but the morning newspaper presents headlines warning both that the “poorest poor hit record high” and that “CO2 takes ‘monster’ jump” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, Friday, November 4, 2011, pp. 3 and 9). Might this dreadful combination of unequal distribution of God’s gifts and disregard for the health of the planet culminate in an apocalyptic destruction of the creation, as so many environmental experts fear?  We dare not dismiss the possibility out of hand; the call to repentance in the face of this possible judgment must be heeded!

Still, if it is true that we are “children of light and children of the day,” as the second lesson says, we will also read the times as the Servant of Creation would have us read them, and “encourage one another and build up each other” so as to persevere all the more in the care of creation, both humankind and otherkind—for that is precisely the good word we take away from Jesus’ “parable of the talents” in today’s Gospel.

Interpretation of the parable of the talents is made problematic by the fact that it seems so contrary to much of Jesus teaching. Warren Carter describes the contradiction as follows:

“In this parable the master behaves in tyrannical ways that imitate dominant cultural and imperial values (25:25-30) and contradicts Jesus’ previous teaching. He rewards the first two slaves for their accumulation of wealth and punishes the third slave for not doing so. The parable takes the perspective of the wealthy elite and legitimates a ‘rich-get-richer and poorer-get-poorer’ approach. It punishes the one who subverts the system” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 487-88).

Who is this master? Conventional allegorical interpretation says that he is Jesus, who thus challenges his disciples (the slaves) to be ready for his delayed return by setting out for them the possible consequences of their failure to properly prepare. But if the master is taken to be Jesus, Carter argues, it would seem that “the gospel has co-opted dominant cultural values in picturing the establishment of God’s empire. God’s empire imitates, rather than provides an alternative to, Rome’s empire, in which the wealthy and powerful become even more so at the expense of the rest.” The strong, positive message that the disciples are “to be actively seeking their master’s good, faithfully carrying out the tasks he has entrusted to them,” has overridden all other concerns, including what exactly that good is, relative to the purposes of God. As we have suggested above, the possible implications of this for care of creation are dreadful: could Jesus have been so careless about the role of his disciples as co-servants of creation, or could Matthew have been so clueless?

The parable is contrary to the values promoted everywhere else in the Gospel.

Bernard Brandon Scott provides us with an alternative reading that rescues the parable for care of creation.  The first two servants have indeed done well. They have made proper use of the wealth that has been placed in their hands. “These servants,” Scott suggests, “are not slaves but stewards acting in the master’s stead.  From the profit they make for their master they will be able to enrich themselves, for they expect to share in his good fortune” (P. 226). Their future, following on their master’s return, is secure, as is the master’s estate.  And from the narrative of the Servant of Creation, we might interpose, as co-servants of creation, they are to enjoy the marvelous increase in value resulting from their care of that which the master has entrusted to them.

None of the options are viable—neither predatory greed nor paralyzing fear.

The unfortunate third servant, on the other hand, has an image of his master that, as Scott suggests, “deprives him of a future, for it freezes the servant in fear.” Is this image of the master wrong? There is poignant ambiguity to the parable here, Scott notes:

“The master never accepts the description of the third servant’s aphorism [reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed] but points back to the first two servants. His refusal to take back the talent implies his rejection of that image. A hearer is asked to choose between two competing images of the master: the explicit image put forward in aphorism by the third servant, and the image implied in the actions of the first two servants. Is the master the hardhearted man of the third servant’s attack, or is he gracious and generous, as he was toward the first two servants? How do we know which of these two views is correct?” (Ibid. pp. 233-34).

We know which image is true of God by virtue of attending to the larger narrative of the Servant of Creation in which this story is placed. The Creator sows the creation richly and graciously and the servants of creation do have incalculable wealth to be responsible for and to take care of.

How can we claim the future as precious gifts of people and land?

What emerges from the parable, Scott urges, is “how one goes about claiming the future. Is it claimed by preserving the precious gift? Or is it claimed in the present as freedom of action, liberating the servant from an aphoristic, conventional vision that paralyzes him?” For Scott it is clearly the latter: “The parable as a window onto the kingdom demands that the servant act neither as preserver nor as one afraid; but act boldly he must. If one is to act boldly, then the rules have been changed. They are no longer predictable.” Again we interpose from the narrative of the Servant of Creation: not frozen preservation, but restoration, healing, and enhancement of a living and dynamic creation is the servant of creation’s proper role. And for that, a trusting faith, wide awake to what’s happening with the creation, is essential. It’s true: terrible in aspect, indeed, is the “outer darkness” of climate change and ecological devastation that will follow from failure to properly serve and steward the wealth of God’s creation. If that is truly the future of Earth, there will be all too much “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Those who trust the Creator, on the other hand, can hope with the psalmist “to be satisfied in the morning with God’s steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday October 30 – November 5 in Year A (Ormseth)

Called To Be No Less Than Servants of Creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on servant leadership.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 30 – November 5, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Micah 3:5-12
Psalm 43
I Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

Live a life worthy of the creator.

The scriptures appointed for this Sunday after Pentecost are focused on the theme of authentic leadership. Over against “prophets who lead my people astray” and rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity” (Micah 3:5, 9), “those who are deceitful and unjust” (Psalm 43:1), and those scribes and Pharisees who “do not practice what they teach,”  Matthew’s Jesus lifts up the images of the “one Father, the one in heaven” and the “one instructor, the Messiah” (Matthew 23:9, 10), to the end that his disciples should be mindful that “the greatest among you will be your servant” and that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12). In the second lesson, Paul writes to the congregation at Thessalonica as “brothers and sisters” who will recognize shared burdens and a fatherly concern for a ‘life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (I Thessalonians 2:9, 12).

 Care for creation practitioners: Practice what you teach!

Those who would lead the Christian community into care of creation do well to heed these counsels. To be credible, leaders on any issue of environmental concern must “practice what they teach” with a seriousness that goes beyond mere show. The burden of behavioral change necessary to restore creation is indeed heavy. Sharing that burden equitably in relationship to one’s responsibility is a complicated challenge; it can probably be met only by those who are willing to forego their own claims for equity and set an example by strict adherence to principle. Especially those who draw on special authority to instruct us regarding environmental damage (climate change scientists, for example) will find that their effectiveness is proportional to their ability to demonstrate their own serious commitment to real behavioral change.

The servant model of leadership.

The most significant element in these readings, however, is the way in which Jesus again lifts up the model of the servant. Jesus’ criticism of the leaders serves to underscore the practical importance of this model: their way is the exact opposite of how a genuine servant would lead. We recognize the model as his own: we confess him to be the Lord, the Servant of Creation (see our comments on Passion Sunday). What particularly interests us here is the way in which the model serves to bridge the way leaders conduct themselves in relationship to their community, with the way Christians, following the model of Jesus, might understand the relationship of humans to creation. The servant model of leadership reinforces the servant model of human care of creation in a manner that other models do not do.

Steward as Model?

In his discussion of three such models, those of steward, citizen, and servant, Norman Wirzba points out that “at least in the popular imagination,” the model of the steward “maintains the notion that human beings are in control, and so stewardship stand in stark contrast to other environmental approaches that stress a more egalitarian view’ (Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 130). “Though it serves well as a titular designation, its programmatic neutrality with respect to means and ends . . . makes it susceptible to misuse and distortion” (Ibid., p.132). The way that the model functions in human community, in short, does not work well as an image for our relationship with nature.

Citizen as Model?

Alternatively, Wirzba suggests, the model of humans as citizens in nature serves to emphasize that “we are through our bodies necessarily and beneficially embedded in a historical and biological context that, while making our individual lives possible, is nonetheless greater than us.” This model is well suited for illuminating our pursuit of self-interest in nature’s arena of conflicting and competing interests, and thus points to our need to expand our range of interest to the “health of the whole” as “citizens entwined together in a common fate” who “harm ourselves and each other if we think and act too much on the assumption of our individuality.” On the other hand, the model so closely identifies human identity and ecological context as to ignore moral and spiritual capacities unique to humans that are needed for the ”transformation that will bring our hearts and minds into alignment with the divine intention for creation” (Ibid., 134-35.)

Servant as Model—in the Image of God

What is needed, Wirzba argues, is a model that “takes seriously the imago Dei and that acknowledges our ecological interdependence, an image that recognizes human uniqueness without turning it into despotic exploitation.” The model of servant of creation meets this need. The model of servant,

“…which itself draws on many human responsibilities, can help us as a focal image that animates and is at work in the various tasks we perform. Servanthood, in other words, permeates the many roles of the religious follower, often by informing the specific practices associated with religious life: prayer, worship, and work each require, at some point, exemplification in a life of service. Moreover, to speak of servants, rather than stewards or citizens, of creation is to highlight the counter-cultural nature of the task before us. Servanthood, unlike major emphases in current cultural life, shifts the orientation of our action away from ourselves to the well-being of others, to the work of ‘making room’ for others to be, and finally to the praise of the creator. It takes our minds off the current obsession with the consumption of creation and redirects it to the work of enabling the continuity of creation. Servanthood, in short, introduces us to the long, patient labor of fitting ourselves within God’s creative work.” (Ibid., p. 135-36. Wirzba develops this theme more fully in his The Paradise of God, “On Being Servants of Creation,” pp. 136 – 145.)

And, we would add, it has the obvious advantage of authorization by the Servant of Creation, as in our Gospel reading for this Sunday!

Live a life worthy of the creator.

Care for creation practitioners: Practice what you teach!

The servant model of leadership.

Steward as Model?

Citizen as Model?

Servant as Model—in the Image of God

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday October 23-29 in Year A (Ormseth)

To love neighbor involves love for their neighborhood. To love God involves love for God’s creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on loving as God loves.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 23-29, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 1
I Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it; ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Coming as it does at the end of a block of narrative in which the conflict between Jesus and his opponents over his mission and his authority is brought to the fever pitch that leads to his death, this saying, the so-called ‘double commandment to love,” constitutes something of an epitome of both Jesus’ teaching and his practice. Citing both Moses and the holiness code from Leviticus, Jesus demonstrates his loyalty to the faith of Israel and thus silences his critics. Again we have an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of care of creation in the mission of Jesus, if we can show the connection of this saying to that concern.

To love the neighbor requires love of their ecological neighborhood.

We have previously given attention to the second half of the saying, concerning love of neighbor, most recently in our comment on the texts for Lectionary 23. With reference to Paul’s ethical counsel in Romans 13:9-10, we asked, “Can one imagine that one could love a neighbor, doing the neighbor no wrong, as Paul specifies, without also caring for the ‘hood’ in which the neighbor lives?”

“Care for the neighborhood as an essential aspect of love of neighbor,” we urged, “encompasses all aspects of the web of relationships, natural no less than social, economic, and political.” We refer the reader to that discussion, and turn to what happens to be the more important and decisive matter of the first half of the saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all our soul, and with all your mind.”

Love for God involves loving all that God loves.

In a recent discussion of the biblical meaning of love, Michael Welker makes the key points that are needed here. “If we take the time to compare the numerous statements about love in the biblical traditions,” he writes, “we are first struck by the multitude of ‘relations’ that cause them to speak of ‘love.’” Contrary to what he regards in contemporary discussions of love as “captivity of thought” to a “paradigmatic concentration on the affective person-to-person relation,” Welker argues that “[a]part from the great variety of ‘love relations’ in the biblical traditions it is striking that for centuries the love of God is strictly connected to the respect for and “attention to the commandments” or to the ‘holding fast to God’s word. Correspondingly, ‘to love God’s name’ and ‘to serve God’ (Isaiah 56:6) can be connected.’ . . . The ‘love of God’  . .  quite obviously also means to take up and pursue God’s intentions as they pertain to the good order and the well-being of creation in general.” Love of God, he urges with specific reference to the saying of Matthew 22:37,

“. . . includes, and even opens up, law-abiding and loving relationships to the world, to fellow human beings, and even to other fellow creatures, according to God’s intentions. The so-called ‘double commandment of love’ should thus not be regarded as a combination of two different basic relations, but as a strict connection that says something important about the biblical understanding of love in general” (Welker, “Romantic Love, Covenantal Love, Kenotic Love,” in The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, John Polkinghorn, editor, pp. 130-31).

The “love God loves with and wants to be loved with” is both revealed in Jesus and made available to us through him as a power with which we, too, can love the creation.

Covenantal love dignifies our role as God’s partners in tending creation.

Love in this perspective takes two forms, covenantal love and kenotic love. Both are of crucial significance for the care of creation. The covenantal form of love, Welker stipulates,

“. . . bestows a great dignity on human beings. They are dignified to take up and pursue God’s intentions in relation to creation, God’s interests in the well being of creation. They are dignified to reveal God’s will and God’s plans for creation. And they are dignified to work toward the fulfillment of the divine creative, sustaining, and transforming agency. No less is expressed in the notion of the imago Dei” (Ibid., p. 133).

But given the great “weight of love” thus conferred on human beings—“For who could claim that he or she could respond to this calling and take care of God’s intentions for the creation? Who could claim to participate in God’s strength and being?” (Ibid.)—, God also “unconditionally turns to creatures in order to liberate them out of the depths of confusion, lostness, and sin, to win them for the coming reign of God, and to ennoble them to the experience and enactment of God’s love, something they can only experience and enact as a new creation.”

Kenotic love is God’s burning passion of all living things in themselves.

In this kenotic form of love, God reveals God’s own “burning passion for creatures” in themselves, and “not just for their suitability to the divine plan for the world.” This love involves “a passionate interest in the otherness of the other, a passionate interest in letting the other unfold himself-herself in freedom, a passionate interest to pave ways for the unfolding of his-or-her life, all are characteristic of kenotic love.” Not just a matter of curiosity, this love

“. . . seeks to win the other for a new life in a new creation. The kenotic love of God seeks a new covenantal relationship—without boundaries, without exclusion, but with the divine purpose to win the beloved one for participation in the divine life and in the divine plans for creation. The life of Christ offers guidance to help us become familiar with these plans” (Ibid., p. 134).

How can we—Christians and congregations—not love and care for creation?

With this assertion we profoundly agree, in light of our course of discovery of such guidance in our comments on the readings for Year A of the lectionary. We can perhaps sum up his argument this way: If love of neighborhood is inherent in love of neighbor, so also is love for God’s creation inherent in love for God. To love God is to respect God’s work of love, the whole creation. It is to love what God loves, with the love with which God wants it to be loved, the love which is ours in and through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This love can be exercised most directly and effectively in relationship to one’s neighbor and the ‘hood’ that we and our neighbors share. Surely it belongs to the practice of every Christian congregation to demonstrate to the community surrounding it that this is very much what Christian faith is about.

To love the neighbor requires love of their ecological neighborhood.

Love for God involves loving all that God loves.

Covenantal love dignifies our role as God’s partners in tending creation.

Kenotic love is God’s burning passion of all living things in themselves.

How can we—Christians and congregations—not love and care for creation?

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday October 16-22 in Year A (Schifferdecker)

Let all creation praise by not polluting! Kathryn Schifferdecker reflects on creation’s ability to praise its Creator.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 16-22, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 45:1-7

Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Matthew 22:15-22

In this week’s Gospel reading from Matthew 22, the religious and political leaders seek to trap Jesus. They ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes. If he answers, ‘yes,’ he will get in trouble with the religious authorities. If he answers ‘no,’ he will be considered a threat to Roman authority.

Jesus asks for a Roman coin and poses the question, “Whose image is this, and whose title?” When they answer, “The emperor’s,” he says, “”Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21).

The distinction between God and the emperor reaches back to the Old Testament, where there are differing opinions concerning human kings. In 1 Samuel 8, when the people of Israel demand a king, God says to the prophet Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8:7). The people don’t need a human king, because God is their sovereign. Nevertheless, God grants their desire and instructs Samuel to anoint Saul, then David, as king. And, of course, God eventually promises David that one of his descendants will always sit on the throne (2 Sam 7), a promise that eventually leads to the belief in a Messiah, a “son of David” who will redeem Israel.

The psalm appointed for this Sunday, Psalm 96, belongs in the first chorus of voices, the chorus that proclaims God as king: “Say among the nations, ‘The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity’” (Ps 96:10).

This proclamation, “The LORD is king!” is great good news to the created world, and creatures, even inanimate creatures, respond with joy:[1]

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad!
Let the sea thunder and all that fills it!
Let the fields exult and all that is in them!
Then all the trees of the forest will shout for joy
Before YHWH, for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.   (Ps 96:11-13; cf. Ps. 98:7-9)

The LORD’s coming in judgment may seem to us at first reading a strange reason for the world and everything in it to shout for joy. “Judgment,” after all, usually implies punishment of some kind. For human creatures, the thought of judgment day probably evokes more fear than exultation; but from the perspective of the non-human creatures—who are the chief singers in these psalms—the fact that God is coming to judge the earth is a very good thing indeed.

The trees, the fields, the seas, and all the animals that fill them, are singing the Hallelujah Chorus because they see salvation coming. They are singing praise to their Creator who comes to judge the world, to set things right, to remove the sin and defilement of which the prophets speak. Our sin defiles the earth, according to the prophets, and the earth and its inhabitants suffer. We human beings, along with the rest of creation, were created to praise our Maker, but when we damage the earth and its inhabitants, their ability to praise is diminished. A polluted river cannot praise God with full voice. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1); but not as clearly when they are clouded with smog. The extinction of a species silences a unique voice in the chorus of praise.

Rainforest destruction, global warming, pollution of air and water—these results of human sin affect human beings, especially those who are poor and vulnerable, those without the means to protect themselves or to move away from unhealthy habitats. We sin against ourselves and our poor human neighbors when we engage in environmentally damaging practices. Psalm 96 reminds us that we sin also against our fellow non-human creatures and our Creator when we engage in those practices. The sin of environmental degradation is sin not only because it endangers or damages the lives of human beings; it is sin also because it diminishes creation’s ability to praise its Creator. “Then all the trees of the forest will shout for joy / Before YHWH, for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth.” For the fields, the sea, the forests, and all the creatures that inhabit them, the fact that God is coming to judge the earth is very good news indeed. In that day, human sin with its pollution and defilement will be wiped away, and the creation will at last be able to sing with full and clear voice in praise of its Creator.

This proclamation, “YHWH is king!” is also, in the end, good news for human beings, as well. “He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth” (Ps 96:13). Judgment in righteousness and truth will expose all our petty lies and self-deceptions, all our seeking after the things that are Caesar’s, all our greed and grasping. And then, stripped of all that weighs us down, we too will be able to join in the chorus of praise rising from the mountains and seas, the plains and forests, to the God of all creation. “O sing to YHWH a new song; sing to YHWH, all the earth!”

Originally written by Kathryn Schifferdecker in 2014.

[1] Much of what I’m saying here about Ps. 96 is published in an article I wrote entitled, “’And also many animals’: Biblical Resources for Preaching about Creation” in Word and World 27:2 (Spring, 2007), 210-223. In the piece on Ps. 96, I relied on memories of a sermon I heard by Ellen Davis during my student days at Yale Divinity School. Davis, of course, has been a leader in ecological hermeneutics for many years.

Sunday October 9-15 in Year A (Ormseth)

It Is God’s Will Dennis Ormseth reflects on joining with the Lord, Servant of Creation, in unending care of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 9-15, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

This is the Feast of Victory for our God!

The coupling of the parable of “The Wedding Banquet” from Matthew 22:1-14 with this Sunday’s first lesson from Isaiah 25 suggests that the parable must be understood as referring to the messianic banquet. Reading these texts together in Christian worship, however, raises a difficult question for those who rejoice in God’s love for all creation.

A verse of one of the canticles of praise sung by Lutheran congregations at the opening of eucharistic worship expresses the expectation that all of creation joins in the feast that celebrates the triumph of God over all evil:

“This is the feast of victory for our God.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
. . . Sing with all the people of God,
and join in the hymn of all creation. . . .”

The liturgy “Now the Feast and Celebration” makes the point even more emphatically: “Now the feast and celebration, all of creation sings for joy.” We have urged this perspective upon our readers at every opportunity in this series of comments on the readings for Year A of the lectionary. That the “Parable of the Wedding Banquet” suggests a markedly less inclusive vision might therefore give us pause concerning this expectation. The refusal of the invitation by a whole host of humans, coupled with the final exclusion of a person brought in from the streets because he is not appropriately dressed, tends to lessen our confidence in the inclusiveness of God’s victorious love. What, then, really counts for inclusion or exclusion in the great feast? Why is the proper wedding garment the crucial factor related to inclusion? And what actually is this exclusion about?

Why the inclusion and then the exclusion?

In Bernard Brandon Scott’s view, Matthew’s version of the parable of the “Man Who Gave a Banquet” needs to be read in sequence with Matthew’s earlier parables of “A Man had Two Sons” and “A Man Planted a Vineyard.” In the progression of the three parables, Matthew “sketches out his vision of the kingdom and its coming,” which represents an “ideology of salvation history” and which “concludes, on the one hand, that Israel has rejected God’s messengers and, on the other, that the church’s good fruits show forth that it is the true Israel.” At the same time, however, this progression undercuts the apparent verisimilitude of the parables, which removes the cause of offence taken at the rejection of the man having no wedding garment. Matthew simply wants to make clear, Scott suggests, “as is most evident in his Great Judgment scene (Matt 25:31-46),” that “if grace calls, the threat of no fruits remains for judgment.” The man without a wedding garment is a man “without the fruits of the kingdom” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, pp. 162-63).

The key to the series of parables is that we join God in care for all creation.

Our reading of the parables of these last several Sundays, while making use of Scott’s suggestion that Matthew undercuts their verisimilitude, also supplants the ideology of salvation history with a theology of care of creation. We would accordingly include in this progression the parable of “the laborers in the vineyard,” the point of which, we suggested (following Scott and Norman Wirzba), is that “God’s generosity privileges the call to work in the vineyard over the wage paid, because work in the vineyard is the more essential blessing” (See our comment on the readings for last Sunday). God’s call to work in the vineyard of creation is a principle motif of the entire sequence, which invites us to enter into “‘the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart and head.” The invitation is “’to join God in the divine work of cultivating and maintaining a garden (Gen. 2:8-9). It is to enter into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality’” (See our comment on the readings for Lectionary 25.  The quote is from Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 155).

Accordingly, the parable of “A Man had Two Sons,” while also part of the ideology of salvation history in which the church becomes the “true Israel,” in this reading can be seen to imply that the Son who actually went to the vineyard and engaged in its care is the true Servant of the creation. Our reading of the parable of “A Man Planted a Vineyard,” furthermore, enlarges the scope of this line of interpretation by drawing on the primary vineyard texts of Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46 for development of the metaphor: those who reject the son reject their role as caretakers of the vineyard; and the new tenants who replace them are those who reclaim the heritage of the Son and join him in the work of restoring the creation, a near parallel to the Gospel for this Sunday.

Warren Carter explains the connection: like the harvesting of good fruits, “feasting and eating indicate participation in God’s purposes.” The readings of Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23 serve to illustrate and underscore the point: the “meal also symbolizes the yet-future completion of God’s purposes when God’s empire will be established in full. Isaiah envisions God’s future triumphant return to Zion, where God will make “for all peoples a feast of rich food. . . . In the parable those who refuse to attend the wedding celebration are excluded, while those who come participate in God’s purposes.” The man who comes without a wedding garment, fails “to discern and honor the authority and goodness of the king,” and therefore suffers the worst imaginable consequences because “to be called and chosen means honoring God (22:37-39) and doing God’s will (7:24-27; 12:46-50) until the judgment” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins, p. 434).

Just as we join the Lord in care for the poor and distress, so also we join the Lord, the Servant of Creation in unending care for God’s creation.

Brandon Scott’s treatment of this parable, which he renames “’What If No One Came?” provides an additional insight worthy of mention here. The banquet, he argues, along with the excuses, which allude to a list of reasons for refusing to participate in holy war, add to the reader’s expectation that this is the messianic banquet that celebrates victory over the Lord’s enemies. But strangely, the meal in the parable “never escalates to the expected messianic banquet, because the master is powerless to attack those who have snubbed him.” Furthermore, the master “loses his upper-class status and must join those who live in the streets.” In contrast to the passage from Isaiah, in which “the poor and distressed receive new value from being associated with God,” in the parable, the “householder cannot raise the poor up but must himself join them.” Perhaps this is the way the Servant of Creation would have originally told the parable. If Matthew, on the other hand, insists on the necessity of vengeance to restore the king’s honor, the point is well taken: it is God’s will that we join with the Lord, the Servant of Creation, in unending care of creation!

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday October 2-8 in Year A (Ormseth)

A Parable about Caring for Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the parable of the vineyard.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 2-8, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

The readings for this Sunday after Pentecost remind us that, according to God’s purpose, the life of God’s people is securely grounded in the Earth. Our first reading, the Psalm, and the Gospel all have in common a key metaphor that brings this home, the metaphor of the vineyard:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; (Isaiah 5:1-7).

You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land (Psalm 80:8-9)

Listen to another parable.  There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. . . (Matthew 21:33-34).

In Walter Brueggemann’s judgment, the Song of the Vineyard in our first lesson is the “paradigmatic use of the metaphor in the Old Testament.” And the Parable of Matthew 21:33-41 is correspondingly “the most extended and complex usage of the imagery in the New Testament” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 257). In the commentary for these lessons, we explore the significance of this metaphor for our call to care for creation.

God’s relationship to the vineyard parallels to God’s relationship to creation.

We have encountered the metaphor of the vineyard before in our reading of the selections from the Gospel of Matthew, most recently with the texts for Lectionary 25, with the parable of the “laborers in the vineyard.” There we pictured a God who cares passionately about his vineyard and is pleased to call laborer after laborer to the good work of caring for it. As the landowner explains to the laborers who criticize the equal pay they received for unequal time spent at labor, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” As we suggested, God’s generosity privileges the call to work in the vineyard over the wage paid, because work in the vineyard is the more essential blessing. While both Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard and Matthew’s rendering of the parable of “the wicked tenants’ evoke this same level of concern for the vineyard, these narratives also draw the reader into the deep anguish of God over what happens to the vineyard, when its inhabitants refuse to engage in their work in a righteous manner.

God is invested in the vineyard as gardener and vinekeeper.

In Isaiah’s narrative, God is envisioned, not as the manager of the vineyard but as its “Gardener-Vinedresser,” an image which links the narrative to the garden in the story of creation in Genesis 2, and as Brueggemann suggests, “connotes fruitfulness and the full function of creation (Num 24:6).” As the use of the metaphor in the accompanying Psalm 80 makes explicit, the image also links the story to the narrative of the Exodus, as it was expressed already in Exodus 15:17: “You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established” (Ibid., p. 255). God’s investment in the vineyard is made absolutely clear in the detailed accounting of the planting. The digging, the clearing of stones, the selection of choice vines, and the building of a watchtower all provide detailed substance for the claim reflected in the anguished question of v. 4a:  “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”

The gardener’s expectations are high and his disappointments are great.

The gardener’s expectations are high: the vat for the wine has been hewn out and is ready to receive the fruit. The gardener’s disappointment is equally great: “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (5:4b). And his action is correspondingly astonishing. With no thought to trying another variety in another season (the standard modern gardener’s perennial response to a disappointing crop), the gardener resolves to destroy the whole vineyard: 

“I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.”

So serious for the gardener is this failure to produce good fruit. The gardener’s response goes beyond the passionate concern that the vineyard be well tended; he is angry enough to bring to bear the full weight of both enemy armies and cosmic forces against the vineyard and its occupants, an anger that is sustained, in the prophet’s telling,  until “the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust” (6:24a). Why so great and consuming anger? “For they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel” (6:24b).

Brueggemann notes that the metaphor of the gardener-vinedresser is what he calls a “metaphor of sustenance,” contrasted with “metaphors of governance,” according to which God is imaged as “one who nurtures, evokes, values, and enhances life,” as opposed to the concern “to maintain a viable order in which life is possible for Israel and for all of creation” (Ibid., p. 250).  But it seems then that there is a certain unexpected wildness about this gardener. The vine and the vineyard together are destroyed in his cataclysmic fury! What are we to make of this?

Justice and care for the vineyard go hand in hand.

That the Song of the Vineyard has reference to the experience of the people of Israel in exile is obvious, of course; and the agenda of the prophet concerns not gardening but the lack of political and economic justice on the part of the leadership. The sour grapes that so anger the gardener are the unjust and uncaring actions of those leaders. As Brueggemann observes, the metaphor of the gardener and his garden or vineyard is:

“able to express both the destructive potential of Yahweh against a recalcitrant object of love, and the remarkable generosity of Yahweh, which becomes the source of hope for rehabilitation in time of displacement.  In the midst of destructive potential and remarkable generosity, we note that the gardener-vinedresser has firm, clear, nonnegotiable expectations for the vine” (p. 257).

But the metaphor guarantees that the fate of the vineyard cannot be separated from that of the vine. The vine and the vineyard are of one piece; people and land are caught up together in the destruction that the leaders of the people have brought upon them all. It comes, surely, of the deep rootedness of the people in the land, a rootedness that perhaps only a gardener who has dug soil, cleared stones, and planted with expensive “choice vines” can fully appreciate. 

Social justice and environmental concerns are inseparably linked.

Contemporary readers concerned with care of creation might see in this a warning that social justice and environmental concern are inseparably linked, however remote the connections may appear to be on the surface. This would suggest, at the least, that neither social justice nor environmental restoration should be pursued in isolation from or at the expense of the other; eventually the linkage will make itself manifest. We might also be struck by the fact that the vineyard, once so carefully tended by God, is, as it were, to be turned back into wasteland or wilderness. No wall shuts out wild animals; no knife or hoe disturbs whatever grows there; and it matters not that drought parches the land. There is an ironic sense of justice to this:  after all the care God extended, the vineyard yield’s only wild grapes. And so the land is returned to wilderness. It was Thoreau who famously said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and the idea is perhaps no more prophetic than it is apt as a basis for setting aside tracts of land called “wilderness.” The wildness that haunts our culture’s disregard of calls for social and eco-justice pertains to energies that are far more comprehensive and threatening than anything that can be designated as a preserve. Such ideas need to be used carefully, of course, as has been demonstrated lately by the claims of politicians to know just exactly what “sins” are responsible for the environmental “wildness” we are experiencing globally in recent times. They seldom seem to have in mind acts of injustice that involve our relationship to the Earth. But the return of the land to wildness as envisioned here echoes themes from the story of Noah; and there is perhaps a sense that land degraded by human misuse needs to “go wild” and be devoid of human habitation before it is ready to be inhabited once again in the expectation of good fruit.

Does Jesus see the significance of the metaphor of the vineyard similarly? Brueggemann calls attention to the fact that in Matthew 21:33-41, the image is again “potentially positive toward Israel and a witness to Yahweh’s attentive generosity” but is “utilized as an assertion of judgment:  “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (Matt 21:41). But there are interesting and perhaps significant differences in the details, as well. First of all, the gardener has become an absentee landowner, who lets out his vineyard to tenants. This social and economic distance opens up the possibility for people to have an impersonal financial interest in the vineyard; and the actions of the tenants seem to confirm this as part of Jesus’ understanding. They do not have the investment in the vineyard that the gardener does; they are not concerned about producing good fruits as much as they are concerned to gain control over the property, even though they acknowledge that it is another’s “heritage” they covet. Indeed, they both dishonor the owner and ignore whatever purposes he might have for the vineyard.

Warren Carter argues that the parable “utilizes a struggle over land and resources to raise questions about ownership and just use” as part of salvation history. Thus the parable:

“evokes a dominant economic practice of the Greco-Roman world where high rents, civic and religious taxes, acquiring seed and feed for the next crop and for livestock, and the need to trade or barter for other goods not produced on a farm, made subsistence existence difficult for many. The religious elite as tenants experience not only the desperation many experienced, but the desperation they helped to cause” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 427).

 Especially telling is their treatment of the son and heir; in killing him they destroy any possibility of the son taking charge of the vineyard and restoring it in accordance with the landowner’s purposes. The linkage between owner, people, and land implicit in the metaphor of the vineyard but weakened in the commercial transaction of renting, is thus willfully broken. The consequence again seems quite astonishing, if at the outset we assume that the landowner represents God. In Carter’s view, the “vineyard remains intact, owned by its owner. It is the tenants who are punished by losing their position as its caretakers,” a punishment which, Carter suggests, is “understood to happen in Jerusalem’s defeat by Rome in 70 C.E.” (Ibid., p. 429). 

We learn the fate of the land owners, but what about the fate of the vineyard?

This conclusion seems strange in the mouth of Jesus. And Bernard Brandon Scott is less certain about the fate of the vineyard. The threat of displacement is, after all, first voiced by the authorities, for whom this is an entirely ordinary way of thinking. With allusions to the patriarchal stories of Joseph, however, and to the conflict over inheritance classically represented by the story of Esau and Jacob, the fact that the parable “provides no ready identification models, no clear metaphorical referencing, an audience is left in a precarious position: In the plot, the kingdom fails and the inheritance is in doubt.”  Even worse, the parable seems to recall Matthew 11:12, “From the days of John the Baptist the kingdom of heaven is breaking out by violence and violent men are raping it.” The kingdom is an object of violence. The owner is a fool, the tenants are bandits, and the messengers are beaten or murdered. . . [The]  parable challenges the predictability of the kingdom’s heirs as good and the apocalyptic assumption that the kingdom’s true heirs will in the end triumph.  In the parable, the final fate of the vineyard is unresolved because the owner is still alive, but no evidence is given for its eventual liberation.  The owner’s fate may be that of his son.” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, pp. 252-53.)

Following this line of interpretation leads inevitably to the question whether Jesus (or Matthew) intends to prefigure Jesus’ death in the telling of the parable in the face of his opponents, who are in fact the party that will be responsible for his death. For reading of the parable in Christian worship, this identification seems inescapable. The one who first enters our company at worship appears in the narrative of the Psalm as “one at your right hand,” on whom the hand of God will rest, “the one whom you made strong for yourself” and then reappears here as the son sent by the father from a far country. And so the fate of the vineyard is made to lie in the same grave as the son, awaiting some great reversal at the end of the story.

 The caretakers reject God’s purposes for the vineyard, and we reject God’s purposes for creation!

Again we can ask, what does all this mean for care of creation? Carter comes close to what we think it means when he writes that this parable of the vineyard “repeats the condemnation of the religious leaders by depicting the fateful consequences of their persistent rejection of God’s purposes, especially in Jesus the son. They are rejected as caretakers of the vineyard. It identifies another group to take over the role of the displaced leaders as God’s agents to ensure the fruitfulness of the vineyard Israel” (Carter, p. 426).

Finding good caretakers for the vineyard is what this is about. However, as we have seen above, people and vineyard are not that easily separated. Or to put it differently, they are only separated so easily in the covetous minds of the thieving tenants and in the coveting minds of those incensed authorities who proclaim that the tenants should be replaced! But the ambiguity of the parable suggests another reason to resist Carter’s conclusion and to close the gap of the imagination with this:

The parable of the vineyard is about caring for creation.

If the landowner is God the creator and Jesus his beloved son, then the Vineyard is not simply the limited space of Israel but extends to the whole creation that God loves. And the new tenants are those who will care for that vineyard as the passionate gardener would care for it, or indeed as his son will, when he returns from the wildness beyond the broken walls to reclaim his heritage and restore both the vine and all others, with their vineyard, their proper places in the Earth. Isn’t this very likely what Jesus’ anticipated in saying, The Kingdom of God will be . . . given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”? (Matthew 21:44).

God’s relationship to the vineyard parallels to God’s relationship to creation.

God is invested in the vineyard as gardener and vinekeeper.

The gardener’s expectations are high and his disappointments are great.

Justice and care for the vineyard go hand in hand.

Social justice and environmental concerns are inseparably linked.

The caretakers reject God’s purposes for the vineyard, and we reject God’s purposes for creation!

The parable of the vineyard is about caring for creation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday September 25 – October 1 in Year A (Santmire)

Things Fall Apart: One Center Holds Paul Santmire reflects on a counter-cultural alternative to a consumer economy.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 25 – October 1, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Some of the most quoted lines of poetry in the modern era are these, from the poem “The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939):

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

These words have not lost their claim on us, as we hesitate to open the daily paper or turn on the news, for fear that some new political or ecological disaster is upon us. Think of the Cuban missile crisis or the events of 9/11 or the increasing number of disastrous droughts or tsunamis around the world.

Sadly, things may be worse than we realize. Never mind the loud noise of world history, which Yeats seemed to have in mind. We also are faced with a quiet crisis (Stewart Udall), which appears to be even more insidious. Call this the Walmart crisis.  In a sense, Walmart rules the world, from rural America to urban China, and back again. Our lives, or the lives of many of us, and the lives of many around the world are focused on getting more things. Ours is the world of global consumerism.  Consumerism makes the world go ‘round.

The problem is—to cite some innocuous sounding words from the Yeats poem—“Things fall apart.” Consumerism has its costs, and they are indeed costly. Think of the Pacific Ocean.  Discarded things that have fallen apart—garbage, it’s called—form a kind of floating island in the Pacific that’s bigger than the state of Texas.

And worse. The “throw away culture” of global consumerism gets us in the habit of treating the whole earth in throw-away terms. One writer has called this the “creeping commodification of everything.” Unconsciously, if not by conscious choice, we treat people, as well as material things, as commodities. Everything gets discarded.

Consider how many Americans are in the habit of “shopping around” for churches that might better satisfy their needs, discarding along the way relationships they’ve built up in the congregations they’re leaving behind. Some even shop around for a new spouse, discarding one husband or wife for another.

Seeking still higher profits or to cut their losses, corporate executives sometimes discard thousands of employees, with little apparent regard for the impact of such decisions on local communities or families. Coal companies blast away the tops of whole mountains, with little serious regard for the human communities in the valleys or the plant and animal communities on the mountains.

Throw it all away! Both the things and the people! That’s how the system of commodification of everything works. A way of life that concentrates on getting more things is a way of life that falls apart.

The Church of Jesus Christ, when it’s faithful to the Word of God, offers a counter-cultural alternative. Instead of a throw-away culture, the Church serves as a “redemption center.” Instead of “my way or the highway,” the Church is committed to God’s way as the right way.  The Church puts God first, not things. This is the God who wants to give us life. And this God is the center that will hold, even when things are falling apart.

So, according to the prophet Ezekiel, God says to the wayward souls of Ezekiel’s own time: “get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live” (Ezek 18:31b-32). The Psalmist speaks with the voice of one who has already decided to put God and God’s Word first in his life: “Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths” (Ps 25:3).

But which God is this, really? Most Americans say they believe in God and things still fall apart.  How is the faith of the Church different? Answer: the God whom the Church celebrates and announces to the world is not the God who blesses the American way of consumerism. This God is invested in a saving culture, not a throw-away culture. Accordingly, when you’re a church-member, you’ve really left the Walmart way behind.

So Paul says to the Philippians: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:5). And how do we do that? Paul answers: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). Then Paul quotes an early Christian hymn, in order to make it absolutely clear who God is. God is the God who empties God-self (kenosis is the Greek word Paul’s thinking of) for the sake of the whole world in Christ: “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). The God whom the Church celebrates and announces to the world is thus not a “god” of getting, but the God of giving, indeed costly self-giving.

And more. According to the Word of God, this self-giving God has a passion for the poor and the lowly. Jesus was notorious in his time, because of the focus of his ministry:  on prostitutes and tax collectors and widows and others who’d been pushed to the edges of society. So, for example, the Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying to the leading religious authorities of his time: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Mt 21:31b).

If you’re looking for Jesus in our world, then, where should you go? Jesus did spend a good deal of time in or near the Temple.  But for the most part, you’d have found him elsewhere, with the down-and-out people of his own day.

So, then, don’t stop at Walmarts. Drive by Nieman Marcus, for sure. Continue on into the city. Pass the elegant high-rise condominiums, where the rich and powerful live. Head over to the back streets. See the homeless wandering around. Visit the shelter for abused women and their children. Walk along the river downtown, whose waters are so polluted that fishing is prohibited (notice, though, that some immigrant families still fish there). Go to church some Sunday in the inner city. That’s where you’re most likely to find the Son of God on any given day in our world.

Some wag once proposed that we should think of the local church as “Consumer’s Anonymous.”  You go there to deal with your addiction to things. You know that things fall apart, but you can’t break the habit, just by working at your addiction on your own.

You go to church because you know you need hear stories about the true God, who stands over against the false god, Mammon: the true God who, according to Ezekiel and the Psalmist, wants you to have life, not death. You go to church to hear stories, as Paul tells them, about how this God has given God-self in Christ, on the Cross, for the sake of the whole world. You go to church to reacquaint yourself with who the Son of God really is: the One whom we know from the Gospels, who came to minister to the outcasts, the godforsaken, and all creatures of no account in this world.

And then, during the week, when you feel the urge to go shopping, because you think that that will make you feel really good, you call up a friend from your church, and he or she comes over to talk you out of your consumerism, once again. After you two have finished talking, you decide together to take some food to the food bank downtown and, on the way back, you make plans to attend a rally in your city to protest American inaction on climate change.

Originally written by Paul Santmire in 2014.

For further theological reflections on consumerism, see John F. Hoffmeyer, “Sacramental Theology in a Consumer Society,” Dialog 53:2 (summer 2014), 127-133.

 

Sunday September 18-24 in Year A (Santmire)

In Praise of Generosity Paul Santmire reflects on a kairos moment for Americans.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 18-24, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

In the liberal state of Massachusetts, a woman phoned into a radio talk show to ask that state’s governor a question: “Why do we have to spend our money to take care of somebody else’s children?” She was referring to the governor’s announced intention to provide a temporary, but safe place for some of the thousands of children who had been crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, in order to escape the constant violence of countries like Honduras.

Hers was a representative voice. Many Americans, some card-carrying Christians among them, are likewise distressed by the flood of immigrants crossing into the U.S. from the south.  Thankfully, church leaders of all stripes are standing up to speak in behalf of those children.  Whose voices will carry the day?

This may be a kairos moment for Americans in general and for American Christians in particular.  Kairos is one of the two Greek words for “time.” Kairos means “the right time” or an “urgent time”:  the time for the harvest, for example, or the time for the birth of a baby. In the 1980’s an ecumenical group of Christians in South Africa produced what they called “the Kairos Document,” a biblically based statement calling for the end of apartheid and all its violence. Thanks, in part, to their leadership, the South African people rose to the occasion, with a pervasive and passionate commitment to non-violent resistance. It was the beginning of the ending of the apartheid system.

The exodus of the children from Mexico into the U.S. may well be a kairos moment for our country, likewise, particularly for those who are committed to follow Jesus. All over the earth today, refugees are flooding into neighboring areas, desperately. Think not only of the U.S.-Mexico border, but of places like Syria and Gaza. But those are just today’s headlines.

Forces are also at work around the globe, driven by climate change, that will before too long produce countless millions of “environmental immigrants,” as well, people like those mostly poor families who live in Bangladesh, who will be driven from their ancestral lands by rising ocean waters.

Ours is indeed a kairos moment, not only politically, as in the case of the children’s exodus, but also ecologically, as in the case of threats to the very lives of millions of the poor of the earth in places like Bangladesh. How will Americans, particularly American Christians, respond to this kairos?

We could pout and then go sit in our gated communities or wherever, making sure not to listen to the daily news too much. We could complain the way that caller did to the Governor of Massachusetts. Call that the Jonah strategy. Jonah pouted when God didn’t destroy Nineveh, the way Jonah wanted God to do (Jon 4:1-5). So some Americans pout: Why should we have to pay attention to, not to speak of paying to help, all those political and environmental refugees?

But that’s not the way the God whom we know from the pages of the Bible wants things to be. God cares for all the children of this earth, including those living in alien places like Nineveh. God even cares about the animals of Nineveh! (Jon 4:11). Are we going to pout about the Ninevehs of this world? Maybe even buy a gun or two in order to feel more secure?

St. Paul was faced with this kind of choice. And he was ambivalent about it (Phil 1:22-24). Frankly, he said, he’d rather depart this stressful life and be with Jesus in the kingdom to come, where he could be at home, once and for all, and not have to face up to all the stresses and strains of his ministry:  prison, persecution, ship-wrecks, church members fighting with one another. But, notwithstanding the ambivalence, Paul knew who he was, one who had been called to take up his cross and follow Jesus. (Phil 1:21)

What does “dying with Christ” mean for those of us American Christians who live relatively comfortable, relatively secure and well fed, well cared-for lives? What is our kairos moment saying to us? How will we take to heart the plight of millions of political and environmental refugees today and in the years to come? What sacrifices are we prepared to make? How are we to take up our crosses, in this respect?

Are we ready to sacrifice time and resources so we can rally around our church leaders who are calling our whole society to love and care for the refugees at our borders, particularly the children among them? Are we ready to sacrifice our sometimes anxious sense of security, by welcoming refugees into our own communities and congregations? Are we ready to risk disapproval from our neighbors, by vociferously raising the issues posed by climate change or by passionately speaking out in behalf of those animals suffering the tortures of industrial farming?

But to do that, to be ready even to think about sacrificing ourselves, taking up our crosses, we’ve probably got to deal first with an inner agenda. And that may be the most difficult thing of all.

Many of us have borne the heat and burden of the day. We’ve been working long and hard, like our parents and maybe our grandparents before us (That our grandparents were poor immigrants from Germany or Sweden or Ireland is another matter; Worth thinking about, though). Why should we share our land and our resources and our economy and the fruits of our labors with all these latecomers flooding across our borders? Why should we have to change our way of life so that poor Bangladeshi children won’t be driven from their homes into even deeper poverty and social insecurity by rising waters?

Jesus has another take on these matters.  Those laborers who came to work in the vineyard at the end of the day were paid the same wages as those who had born the heat and burden of the day! (Mt 29:9)  That’s why those who worked all day of course grumbled, (Mt 20:10-11) like the woman talking to the Governor of Massachusetts. But Jesus has a simple answer to such inner discontent on the part of those who’ve worked so hard. God is a generous God! God cares for everybody! So we all are free to do the same!

Are we ready to make that inner change, to take the generosity of God to heart and to go and do likewise?  And to sing along the way, praising the generosity of God?  Singing with the Psalmist:  “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145:8f). Isn’t the time—the Kairos—at hand now, for all of us to sing this song, praising the generosity of God, both in word and in deed?

For more information about “the crisis at the border” and advocacy opportunities in behalf of refugees, see the website of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service:  http://lirs.org/bordercrisis/

Originally written by Paul Satmire in 2014.

Sunday September 18-24 in Year A (Ormseth)

Acceptance in an Economy of Grace Dennis Ormseth reflects on the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 18-24, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

The readings for this Sunday after Pentecost invite our participation in God’s gracious care for all creation. In the words of the Psalmist, we “celebrate the fame of [God’s] abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of [God’s] righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 145:7-8). An additional verse makes it clear that this love is all-inclusive: “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps 145:9). So we hear that out of concern for the “hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals,” God relents of a threat to punish all Nineveh (Jonah 4:11). And we are encouraged by the Apostle Paul to engage in the “fruitful labor” of a life lived “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” the one whom we know as the Lord, the Servant of all creation. And the Gospel provides more specific encouragement for engaging in this care.

Interpretations of the parable of the “laborers in the vineyard” typically emphasize the landowner’s generosity and “the free gift of grace associated with the kingdom’s coming.” The problem with this reading, suggests Bernard Brandon Scott, is that the supposed target of this teaching, the Pharisees, “would not have seen themselves as rejecting God’s generosity to sinners,” nor is it suggested anywhere that “those who have worked in the vineyard all day have not earned their wages,” which on close analysis turn out to be not generous, but only what an average a peasant could expect to earn (”the usual daily wage,” NRSV) (Hear Then the Parable, pp. 282-83).

What about these workers living on the margins?

The point of the parable lies elsewhere, Scott urges. Matthew reads the parable “as an example of the theme that the first shall be last and of the moral contrast between good and evil” (Ibid., p. 287). He leads his readers into the parable, we note, with a sketch of the end of time (“at the renewal of all things” . . . “and when everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life”) and a portrayal of the great reversal it brings about (“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”). The parable also speaks of those who have left home. As Warren Carter notes in his illuminating commentary, day laborers like those invited by the landowner to work in the vineyard,

“. . . were a common sight in the agora, or marketplace (20:3) as they waited to be hired for work. They were a readily available pool of cheap labor for wealthier landowners and urban dwellers. Commonly uprooted from peasant farms taken over by wealthy landowners after foreclosing on debt, or forced from family plots because they could not support the household, they looked for agricultural or urban work, usually day by day and at minimal rates. During planting and harvest, work was readily available, ‘for vintage and haying’ (Varro, On agric 1.17.2), but in between times it often was not. For these ‘expendables’ or involuntary marginals . . . life was unpredictable, marked by unemployment, malnutrition, starvation, disease, minimal wages, removal from households, and begging. Their situation was more precarious than slaves since an employer had no long-term investment in them” (Matthew and the Margins, p.397).

We have seen their modern-day counterparts crowding the entrances to Home Depot parking lots. They are persons for whom the passage of the time of day could easily descend into hunger and a state of despair. Those not hired will end the day without resources to restore themselves for another day of anxious waiting to be hired; they will know themselves as persons without place or means to live. The question that has to be answered in the hearing of this parable is: “What is right?”—because those who are jobless at the day’s end have the same needs as those who are hired early in the morning. And what possibly could the hope for the renewal of all things mean for them?

Determining what is “right” is not so easy.

The narrative of the parable is structured according to the passage of time: from morning, to noon, then through the afternoon and into the evening. The landowner has promised that he will pay each of them “‘whatever is right.” And as each new cohort arrives to work in the vineyard, the question “what is right?” has to resonate more stridently with those who came earlier—and, of course, with the parable’s audience. The surprise at the end of the day is that all are paid the same, what those hired first agreed to, namely, a day’s living wage. Just so, those who came first want to know, what is right about equal pay for very unequal work? And hearers who identify “with the complaint of the first-hired,” opt “for a world in which justice is defined by a hierarchical relation between individuals (i.e., for a world in which the accounting should set matters aright.). To treat all the same is not just, because all are not alike, all have not earned the same.”

The issue is not justice but acceptance

But we have seen earlier what can happen when an accounting is expected to set matters aright. For example, in the parable of the king’s accounting we read last Sunday, an expectation of different treatment on the part of the servant elicited a demand from his fellow servants for an equally harsh punishment! It appears that it is indeed more difficult to say “what is right” than one at first thinks. But is it really a fair resolution that the landowner claims for himself: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Again the ground has shifted under the feet of the audience: there will be no resolution to the question “what is right.” As Scott explains, “The lack in the parable of any absolute standard of justice undermines any human standard for the kingdom.” What then is the standard? For the parable, value or worth (i.e., a place in the kingdom), Scott argues, is determined not by what is right but by acceptance. The householder’s urgent though unexplained need for laborers is the parable’s metaphor for grace. It is not wages or hierarchy that counts but the call to go into the vineyard. The householder’s generosity lies not in the wage but in the need (Scott, p. 297). And because nothing is said about it being either planting or harvest time, the need is not so much the landowner’s own need, but rather that of the laborers themselves. Those who hear the parable as a story of injustice (“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”) are sent away from the vineyard; they do not belong here with “the last.”

The vineyard is God’s vineyard—the world!

How then is this parable concerned with care of creation? Early, midday, afternoon, evening, the landowner persists through the cycle of the day. The workers are called, Scott notes, to service at “not simply any farm work but labor in a vineyard,” which has the strong metaphorical potential of the Song of the Vineyard (Is 5:1-7) and Jeremiah 12:10, the vineyard which “many shepherds have destroyed.” It is a richly significant place. And who is the householder? In Matthew’s casting, it is Jesus (Scott, p. 287). In our reading, it is Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation. And he calls these persons at the margins to participate in the “alternative economy of unlimited grace” which we envisioned in our comment on last Sunday’s readings, in which the gift of creation always creates the value to be enjoyed by those who participate in it. Here, too, is that “alternative economy” in which an “alternative egalitarian lifestyle” with its equal opportunity for meaningful work is regarded as the “right” thing, the good, Godlike thing, to do (Carter, p. 398). The workers were without place to work; but by the end of the day each of them has been restored to work in the creation and invited to enter into the joy of that “good thing.”

Can we offer work that is meaningful for people and that restores creation?

Among the strategies for developing a “culture of creation” (identified by Norman Wirzba in his Paradise of God) is the renewal of the meaning of work in relationship to the creation. Work that is severed from the rhythms of creation in places that are not familiar to us has an anonymous character, he suggests,

“that makes it impossible for workers to see practically how what they are doing might benefit or harm others, and vice versa. What we do, our productivity, serves a neighborhood that is unfamiliar to us, and so the affection and care that are the hallmarks of quality work, as well as the inspiration for a fulfilling and enjoyable work experience, are untapped. In a global economy, for the most part, we do not see the effects of what we do because they take place, oftentimes, thousands of miles away. Compensation serves as the substitute for the felt kindness and experienced blessing that otherwise would come from the close, affirming interaction among friends. . . More fundamental to work than its compensatory or its obligatory aspects is its ability to express gratitude and respect for innumerable benefits received. . . .Put positively, authentic or proper work and leisure reflect an attitude of attention to the orders and the needs of creation and a disposition to care for and preserve the rhythms and flow of life” (Wirzba, pp. 153-54).

The workers hired at the beginning of the day protested the seeming injustice of the landowner; they obviously thought mainly of their value in terms of the compensation they should earn, it seems. Those called later had the opportunity to learn about mercy, respect and gratitude from one who wanted to be not just an employer, but also one who would be a friend.

Can we root our work in the grace of creation?

Can members of a congregation learn to think differently about their work, and perhaps even to experience it differently? Possibly, if they can see themselves as people who have at least in spirit “left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields,” for Jesus’ name’s sake. As Wirzba suggests, drawing on the mystical insight of Meister Eckhart, in “returning to our ‘ground ‘. . . we come upon the experience of the grace of creation and there find our proper bearings for action. We learn that work is not foremost about us, but is instead the holy activity through which creation as a whole is sanctified. Work, rather than following from divine punishment, becomes the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart and head. It is to join with God in the divine work of cultivating and maintaining a garden (Gen 2:8-9).  It is to enter into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality.” For those who came last to the vineyard, all this opens up as possibility for them—for them, and for those who hear, whenever the invitation of Jesus to work in God’s vineyard is presented.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday September 11-17 in Year A (Ormseth)

A Reconfigured Parable Dennis Ormseth reflects on a parable’s proposal of the unlimited economy of grace.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 11-17, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:[1-7]8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

With a compelling primary theme of forgiveness, the readings for this Sunday after Pentecost seemingly offer little of direct relevance to our concern with care of creation. To be sure, the attention given to the church community’s ethos in the Gospel and the second lesson can prove salutary for any effort that requires corporate discipline and generosity of spirit. The emphasis on forgiveness might be particularly helpful, specifically, in strengthening the interpersonal relationships of a congregation that seeks to model the kind of face-to-face web of neighborhood relationships we proposed in our comment on last Sunday’s readings.

Can forgiveness be extended to the relationship between congregation and neighborhood?

F. LeRon Shults and Steven J. Sandage illustrate the point nicely in The Faces of Forgiveness:  Searching for Wholeness and Salvation. They interpret Matthew 18:23-35 in terms of a “facial hermeneutics of intersubjectivity” that reveals a community “struggling with problems of power in their way of ordering their life together and needed instruction and exhortation on manifesting grace toward each other.” The offending slave of the parable, they suggest, shows no “positive movement toward forgiveness in the sense of therapeutic transformation.” The horizon of his understanding needs to be extended “both temporally and spatially so that he could imaginatively envision his own place in the broader human community” (Shults and Sandage, pp.237-39). Any such extension of understanding within the community, we can hope, would contribute to a healthier dynamic in the relationship between a congregation and its neighborhood.

See how God’s goodness has cosmic dimensions!

Encouragement for going beyond this modest result to reflect further on these texts in search of specific direction for care of creation might nonetheless be inferred from reading the Psalm appointed for the day. Giving thanks for God’s goodness (“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—who forgives all your iniquity”), the psalmist measures God’s “steadfast love” with cosmic dimensions: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us” (103:11-12). The psalmist speaks of the Creator’s love: “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (103:14, not included in the appointed verses). Is there, possibly, a cosmic significance, then, to the practice of forgiveness?

Could this tyrant reflect God’s image?

Furthermore, the parable with which Jesus exhorts the undoubtedly astonished Peter to unlimited acts of forgiveness is focused rather less clearly on interpersonal relationships than Shults and Sandage tend to view it. Rather, the frames of reference are the economic, social, and political relationships characteristic of imperial rule. As Warren Carter observes,

“The king and his reign are usually understood as images of God and God’s empire (18:35). But the gospel has established that God’s empire manifested in Jesus is generally not like the death-bringing and oppressive reign of Rome and typical kings (17:25; 20:25). Yet the parable evokes precisely this scenario! The king is a tyrant who, like Rome (see 18:24), collects excessive tribute, and in the end inflicts vicious torture on a servant” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 370-71).

Thus, the scope within which the act of forgiveness is being considered has been expanded to encompass “affairs of state,” in the phrase of Bernard Brandon Scott.

And there is even more. There is a striking contradiction in this parable’s presentation by Matthew: It evokes for the reader that “the familiar image of God as king, but the imperial scenario of exploitative and oppressive reign . . . indicates that this figure cannot be God. The audience can discern that God’s empire is not like this, is not oppressive, does not deal in self-serving ‘mercy’. . , does not forgive just once only to revoke it.” Nevertheless, to the reader’s great surprise, at the conclusion of the parable, Jesus insists that his “heavenly Father” will do exactly what this king does to his servant. The frame of the parable has been enlarged to embrace the huge and even monstrous question of the relationship of God to the great conflicts of human history.

Is this not unjust fiscal policy?

Interpreters struggle to thread their way though the thicket of this text. Scott is helpful in providing a reading that does not require strict narrative consistency to reach its result. “A chaotic situation entraps the audience,” he notes:

“The king’s brutal action forces a hearer to reconsider the consistency building that has held the story together. By identifying with the fellow servants in reporting the servant, a hearer bears with them responsibility for unleashing the king’s wrath. By bringing vengeance on the servant, the fellow servants (and the hearer) have left their own situation in jeopardy.  The demand for ‘like for like,’ for apparent justice, has left them exposed. If a king can take back his forgiveness, who is safe?” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, pp.  278).

“Who, indeed?” we might ask in our times of massive public indebtedness generated by the policies and behavior of a global financial elite. While the fellow servants might have avoided the moral hazard of “bailing out” the king’s lead tax farmer, in the phrase of our day, they have lent legitimacy to the crushing disintegration of the economic order that they themselves depend on for their well being. All of them have become inescapably more vulnerable to the harsh policy of the king who will destroy the servant’s business, his family, and his position of power within the community, in the name of accountability.

But the disturbance goes even deeper, Scott observes. The fellow servants’ reporting is like the first servant’s own activity. In the end, the fellow servants have behaved the same way he did, namely, they failed to forgive and they demanded punishment. And so the audience is drawn ineluctably “into a threatening world whose boundaries and guidelines begin to dissolve,” and the hearers are “swept into a vortex for chaos” in which they fail as the servant fails: they, too, “have failed to forgive.” The narrative thus leads its audience to a “parabolic experience of evil, not intentional evil but implicit, unanticipated, systemic evil . . . where the only option left is repentance” (Ibid., p. 279-80).

How might the scenario of this parable have gone differently?

The audience’s conundrum serves to raise the question, beyond the telling of the parable, regarding how things might have gone differently? How might this terrifying result of the king’s need for accountability be avoided? Is it really conceivable that the king might have forgiven his debtor not just once, but a second and third time, or even “seven times seven times,” as Jesus set the standard for Peter? In a less troubled but real world, of course, the situation could have been avoided entirely if the debtor paid his debt, with appropriate interest. Or being unable to do that, on account of whatever combination of factors, perhaps he might have succeeded in winning the king’s assent to a plan that would have allowed him to continue service of his co-servants debt, with which he might, over time, pay what he owes. Contemporary readers of Matthew’s Gospel will recognize a set of problems that confront us daily in a time of extended financial crisis.

Such leniency on the part of king and servant alike would have the advantage, it might be argued, of allowing the others to share in the good king’s generosity. It seems that the servant’s better course might have been not only to encourage his master in this creative course of action, but to demonstrate its value and power by first taking the initiative himself, even risking his own wealth, in order to show the others that such a generous spirit works to the well-being of all. Couldn’t the king then indeed be the good king of God’s empire, on whom one could rely for a properly positive analogy for an infinitely forgiving God? Indeed, might one not quite appropriately imagine that the king of the parable is truly Jesus’ heavenly father, the creator of all things?

How can we give account of our care for the Earth?

If that were taken to be the case, then the servant who was called to give account is clearly the human being tasked with responsible care of the creation, and we have a parable very much concerned with care of creation. Ideally, the servant could report that his care has indeed enhanced the creation, so responsible has he been in exercising his responsibility. But failing that, again for whatever reason, would it not be appropriate for him, relying on his king’s generous mercy, to set forth in a great venture to restore what has been lost, drawing along with him in this great project of restoration of all those who are in turn accountable to him, so that they could know and rejoice with the king that not only his original gift was being honored, but that with each successive allowance of space and time to further amend their destructive ways, the glory of that creation might be enhanced far beyond its original state, now understood to have been good enough for starters, but hardly perfect?

We can be participants in a web of creation that is re-given in every moment of its journey through time by an infinitely loving God.

The reader will hopefully understand and appreciate what this new spinning of the parable is meant to accomplish: as an alternative to the “parabolic experience of evil” set out above, we propose a “parabolic experience of good,” as it were—indeed, an intentional, explicit, anticipated, and whole reality of created goodness, in which both king and servants participate with great joy!  This, we would suggest, is what becomes possible when Jesus is seen to be truly the servant of creation, who does the will of his heavenly father, the creator of all things. God is indeed infinitely gracious in giving the creation for the benefit of humanity, but only as participants in the whole web of creation that is re-given in every moment of its journey through time. Precisely in responding to this infinite love of the creation by properly caring for the creation his father loves, the servant of creation works out the role that the unforgiving servant refused. Now that he has been introduced in the shadow of his antithesis, this true servant will appear in other parables of Jesus’ telling in Matthew, such as “the Faithful and Wise Servant” (Mt 24:45-51), “A Man Entrusts Property” (Mt 21:33-46), and “A Householder Went Out Early” (Mt 20:1-15), and, of course, in many parables in the other Gospels.

The new parable proposes an alternative economy of unlimited grace.

The parable proposes an alternative economy of unlimited grace as a clue to understanding what forgiveness is about, and why it must be unlimited. Our resetting of the parable proposes a narrative of the relationship between the human servant of God and God’s creation that envisions its restoration as a possible outcome of a radically forgiving spirit. Support for this re-setting can be found in two provocatively different essays. Thomas Friedman has argued in his Hot, Flat, and Crowded (Release 2.0 Edition), that the 2008 financial crisis and the environmental crisis are derived from one cause. As he puts it, the Great Recession that began in 2008 was a “warning heart attack” that we ignore at our great peril:

“. . . while they might not appear on the surface to have been related, the destabilization of both the Market and Mother Nature had the same root causes. That is why Bear Stearns and the polar bears both faced extinction at the same time. That is why Citibank, Iceland’s banks, and the ice banks of Antarctica all melted down at the same time. The same recklessness undermined all of them. I am talking about a broad breakdown in individual and institutional responsibility by key actors in both the natural world and the financial world—on top of a broad descent into dishonest accounting, which allowed individuals, banks, and investment firms to systematically conceal or underprice risks, privatize gains, and socialize losses without the general public grasping what was going on” (Friedman, pp.6-7).

This insight is strong reason to attend, as this reading does, to the origins of the practice of forgiveness of sin in the practice of forgiveness of debt, as the phrase “forgive us our debts” in what used to be the standard version of the Lord’s Prayer serves to remind us. Its implications for the current “affairs of state,” not just its psychology of the failure to forgive as Jesus would have us forgive, are clear.

Our current financial crisis is a crisis also of the environment

If the financial crisis is also a crisis of the environment, are they not together also a crisis of the creation? If our reading finds surprising resonance with such current “affairs of state,” however, it also remains faithful to the theological concern for forgiveness as a relationship between God and humankind. In his discussion of the doctrine of salvation in The Beauty of the Infinite, David Bentley Hart observes that Christian theology effects a conversion “of the story of wrath into the story of mercy,” replacing “the myth of sacrifice as economy with the narrative of sacrifice as a ceaseless outpouring of gift and restoration in an infinite motion exceeding every economy.” Without developing his argument in full, we see its relevance to our reading in the following comment:

“The sacrifice that Christian theology upholds is inseparable from the gift: it underwrites not the stabilizing regime of prudential violence, but the destabilizing extravagance of giving and giving again, of declaring love and delight in the exchange of songs of peace, outside of every calculation of debt or power. The gift of the covenant—which in a sense implores Israel to respond—belongs to the Trinity’s eternal “discourse” of love, which eternally “invites” and offers regard and recognition; it precedes and exceeds, then, every economy of power, because all “credit” is already given and exhausted, because the love it declares and invokes is prior to, and the premise of, all that is given” (Hart, pp. 350).

Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores the Creator’s gift and offers it anew for our responsible care as an act of forgiveness;

God’s balances, he concludes, “are not righted by an act of immolation, the debt is not discharged by the destruction of the victim and his transformation into credit; rather, God simply continues to give, freely, inexhaustible, regardless of rejection. God gives and forgives; he fore-gives and gives again” (Ibid., p. 351). Just so, Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores the Creator’s gift and offers it anew for our responsible care as an act of forgiveness; those who join in care of creation share in that act, as often as it takes place.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday September 4-10 in Year A (Ormseth)

Love Your Neighbor! Dennis Ormseth reflects on cultivating a sense of place, where love for one another includes all of life.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 4-10, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

With the texts for this Sunday after Pentecost, we continue from the previous two Sundays a search for principles to guide the church’s care for creation. Our requirement is that the principles be consonant with Jesus’ role as Servant of Creation and also conform to the general expectations he set out for his followers. The reading from Matthew reiterates the encouragement from the Gospel reading two Sunday’s ago for engaging in this search: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  As we stated in our comment on that text, we understand this promise to encourage the church in the pursuit of understanding what works for the “care, preservation, and restoration of the Earth,” in view of the global ecological crisis of our times.

The Gospel for this Sunday is clearly focused on interpersonal conflict within the community of faith. The practices proposed here for resolving conflict within the community, while not specifically relevant to care of creation, are nonetheless good counsel for those advancing the cause of creation care within congregations. They envision a close, but not a closed, community that holds its members accountable for the ethical consequences of their beliefs. By careful comparison, Warren Carter shows that while these guidelines are similar to those developed in other religious communities of the period, they clearly incline more toward reconciliation than strict exclusion. Even those who have resisted both private and public admonishment are still to be regarded as “Gentiles and tax collectors,” which would make them “objects of mission, people to be won over to the community of disciples . . . . What is ratified is not the offender’s permanent exclusion.” Like God (Mt 18:10-14), the community pursues the difficult task of restoration.” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading pp. 367-68).

This is wise counsel for environmentalists operating within the church; adamant, self-righteous insistence on environmentally benign practices can quickly alienate offenders beyond the point of recruitment to the cause. Patience in developing an appropriate understanding of the issues at stake is by far the more successful strategy. The “two or three” gathered in the name of Jesus do well to keep the purpose of the healing and restoration of creation ahead of being “right”—it should suffice that they have the promise of the Servant of Creation to be with them.

Love for Neighbor and Self Cannot Ignore Love of the Nature that Undergirds Us.

While the counsel regarding love of neighbor from the second reading in Romans 13 would seem to be similarly limited to the arena of social relationships, it is in fact highly relevant to our concern with care of creation. We noted in our comment on the lesson from Romans for last Sunday that, in the view of David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate in their recent book on Greening Paul, the Apostle Paul’s ethical reflections generally constitute “an ethic of universal human concern” that “offers the potential to undergird some forms of ecological reflection,” although remaining “a theological ethic that is essentially anthropocentric.” Paul’s summation of the law under the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” in today’s first lesson demonstrates their point exactly. Paul’s choice of commandments fits well within this limitation of concern to human relationships; and the suggestion that such love is appropriately measured by one’s love of self would appear to ignore Jesus’ encouragement to “deny self and take up one’s cross,” which we encountered in last Sunday’s Gospel. On the other hand, when read in the context of faith in Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation, this command to “love one’s neighbor as oneself” proves to be profoundly salutary for care of creation as practiced by his church.

Caring for the sheep means tending to the pasture. Loving the neighbor means caring for our shared place in creation.

Can one imagine that one could love a neighbor, doing the neighbor no wrong, as Paul specifies, without also caring for the “ ‘hood” in which the neighbor lives? The problem of Paul’s “anthropocentricism,” in this instance at least, may be more a matter of our tendency to read “neighbors” simply as individuals who either have needs to be met or, as in a common interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, the means and will to meet those needs. But was the man on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho to be loved even though, or precisely because, he was not at home with his own neighbors, in the sense of those who live close by (cf. Luke 10:25-37). Might not Jesus have meant to assert the importance of that very natural web of relationships we call a neighborhood across a wider span of reference? As we have noted before, a good shepherd takes care not only for the sheep of his flock but also for the pasture where his sheep feed. In a sense, what the Good Samaritan did for the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was to create a neighborhood that would provide for his very desperate and immediate need.

Love your neighbor! Love your neighborhood!

Furthermore, the idea of taking one’s self-love as the measure of one’s love of neighbor is removed in the instance of the actual neighbor, since the actual neighbor is by definition one who shares that ‘hood’ with one’s self. The practice of love for the neighbor’s neighborhood necessarily entails love for one’s own neighborhood. Since they are the same place, what one does for the ‘hood’ to the benefit of the neighbor necessarily also benefits oneself within that same web of relationships.

Cultivate a sense of your place.

Care for the neighborhood as an essential aspect of love of neighbor encompasses all aspects of that web, natural no less than social, economic and political. However, the importance of care of the neighborhood, understood as a geographically-limited region, derives also from the fact that it involves a network of personal relationships that, as we have seen above with reference to the Gospel reading, should be present and operative within the life of a congregation. Such relationships are characteristically face-to-face, whether that interface is between humans or between humans and the non-human creation.  They make possible a quality of concern and care all too rare in the normally less personal relationships of modern society. As Norman Wirzba observes,

“The significance of proximity, of face-to-face familiarity, should not be underestimated as we try to recover a sense of responsibility for creation. In large part it is because the moral sense depends on it. Is it an accident that the eclipse of the moral sense of the world goes hand in hand with the practical and the theoretical distance between humanity and the earth that is fully developed in the modern world? So long as we treat others, whether they be human or nonhuman others, in an abstract manner as objects or workers or consumers, we invariable tend to degrade them, to misunderstand and misuse them. We overlook their intrinsic value or at best assign to them a value derived from our economic or utilitarian calculus” (Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, p. 170).

While Wirzba makes this point relative to the growth of economic and social organizations in modern society, we would raise it as an especially important concern for congregations seeking to consistently demonstrate care of creation. In the church, as elsewhere, responsible action requires “that we become knowledgeable about the contexts in which our action takes place.” This happens only as we “forsake our passive ways and become attentive to the world around us” (Ibid., pp. 165-66.)

Measure your ecological imprint on the place you inhabit.

The drive for what usually counts for success on the part of contemporary congregational organizations involves growth that quickly transcends capacity for awareness of the congregation’s ecological footprint. Corporate efficiency “demands uniformity and generalization,” Wirzba notes. This is true also for churches: policy is too often guided by principles of growth that foster disregard, not only for differences between persons, but also for the great variety of life in the ecological setting of the congregation. “There simply isn’t the time to pay attention to, nor is there someone who can master all the specifics of, the needs of particular places. What this simplification amounts to is a distortion of the reality engaged” (Ibid., p. 167). Who takes note if that huge expanse of asphalt deemed necessary to attract young suburban families represents an assault on water quality and animal habitat? Who counts the cost to the health, so that people might come, ironically, to worship God the Creator and proclaim Jesus the Servant of Creation, Lord?

When love of neighbor is taken to include love of the neighbor’s neighborhood, the congregation will necessarily develop concern for the health of the larger community’s ecological situation. Care for the congregation’s neighborhood will indeed be a primary concern for a congregation that cares for creation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday August 28 – September 3 in Year A (Ormseth)

Following Jesus as Servant of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on self-centered reasons and altruism.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 28 – September 3, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

In our comment on the lections for last Sunday, we presented an argument for the appropriateness of our identification of Jesus as “the Lord, the Servant of Creation.” Authorization for this new title, we suggested, grows out of Jesus’ promise that he would build his church on the basis of Peter’ confession and that it’s use constitutes a proper use of the powers vested in the church “to bind and loose” such matters as arise in the manifestation of God’s empire. The argument we have presented provides strong encouragement for the work of caring for creation on the part of the church, we believe, with the caution that this Sunday’s Gospel needs to be taken into consideration as one engages in such care.

What might “taking up one’s cross and following Jesus” mean for the care of creation?

Our concern is this: when ecological awareness and political action on environmental issues become part of the ethos of the Christian church, they should be governed by principles that Jesus laid down for his followers for their ministry. It follows, with respect to the Gospel reading, that just as Peter’s confidence in his confession of Jesus as Messiah is challenged in this Sunday’s Gospel by Jesus’ announcement that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” so also does the authorization of care of creation entail an expectation that those who draw on Jesus for support and guidance for their care of creation will conform to the counsel set forth in his response to Peter’s rebuke:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” Or what will they give in return for their life? (Mt 16:24-26).

What, then, might “taking up one’s cross and following Jesus” mean for the care of creation?

“Jesus does for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus as a human being might find more desirable and ‘wise.’”

Our answer will of course be shaped by what we understand it to have meant for Jesus to take up his cross. Warren Carter explains the necessity of Jesus’ suffering in terms of two broad themes.  First, there is the political imperative: “He must suffer in Jerusalem because the center is always threatened by the margins and the empire strikes back at those who expose its injustice and who promote an alternative empire. His suffering is the inevitable consequence of this collision course with the political, socioeconomic, and religious elite” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 341). To care for creation as Jesus cares for it, accordingly, carries an expectation of coming into conflict with the economic and political structures of our society, with an awareness that this conflict will be costly to one’s status and power in relationship to the community where one lives. As we suggested in our comment on the readings for Passion Sunday, Jesus, who serves God by faithfully serving creation, suffers precisely on account of that service. “Jesus does for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus as a human being might find more desirable and ‘wise.’” In Jesus’ words from the Gospel, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” For, to follow Jesus, as Carter puts it, “is to renounce the practice of telling God and God’s agent how God’s purposes are best accomplished. It is to refuse to place oneself ahead of, or in the place of, the revealer.” It was in holding to this rule that Jesus came into conflict with the religious and political authorities. And so will we.

Will we face the cost?

At the same time, it is precisely this “cost” that can be expected to generate the spiritual power and churchly social capital needed to stand in steadfast opposition to the community’s disregard for creation, and the courage to await vindication. Coinciding with this first necessity is a second, more explicitly theological one:  his suffering is “also inevitable because through Jesus’ suffering and death, God will expose the limits of the elite’s power to punish and control. God will raise him to show that while the political and religious elite trade in death, God’s sovereignty asserts life over death. They do not have the last word” (Ibid.).

The appeal to care for creation is here grounded in a radically altruistic regard for others, irrespective of the consequences for one’s self.

The difference of approach here, in comparison with standard appeals for action on environmental issues, is clear. The latter generally appeal to rationally calculated and/or emotionally awakened self-interest. Utilization of new technologies, it is urged, save a congregation money as well as reduce pollution; or, it is said, we must act so that our grandchildren can enjoy the same quality of life we enjoy, or better. Such appeals have their place, to be sure. But the appeal here is instead grounded in a radically altruistic regard for others, irrespective of consequences for one’s self. Again, in Jesus’ words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

Or, as Carter puts it, “Jesus’ scandalous call . . . is a call to martyrdom, to die as Jesus does . . . . Such is the risk of continuing Jesus’ countercultural work of proclaiming and demonstrating God’s empire (Mt 10:7-8).” Because the calculation involved here is a matter of life and death, both one’s own and others, the action provides the occasion for the manifestation of the living God’s creative sovereignty over life and death; only so can one actually hope for defeat of the demonic powers operative in the oppressive systems of the social and political order, which—because they are deeply rooted in self-concern and presuppose the existence of the self in unbroken continuity and undiminished power—cannot otherwise be overcome.

Paul challenges us to oppose evil with goodness.

The second lesson, Romans 12:9-21, provides an illuminating comparison of different ways of developing an ethic of care for creation. The ethical counsels offered by Paul also express a degree of altruistic regard for the other, informed as they are by the quest “to discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” offered in 12:2 as the basic principle of Christian life. Carol Dempsey appropriately characterizes the two main themes of the counsels as follows:

” . . . first, the ways that Christians are to manifest genuine love (vv. 10-13), and second, the obligations that one has towards one’s enemies (vv. 14-20). The final verse summarizes Paul’s comments: Christians are not to succumb to evil and evil’s ways but are to deal with evil according to the ways of goodness” (Dempsey, “Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time,” in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, p. 188).

However, notably missing from the counsels in this passage is the eschatological life and death thrust of Jesus’ teaching. David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate make the argument that while Paul’s ethical teaching represents (in this and other passages such as Romans 12:14-17; Galatians 6:10; Philippians 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:12, 5:15):

“an ethic of universal human concern that offers the potential to undergird some forms of ecological reflection, since the injunction to love or do good to all (human) neighbors can promote action to mitigate the effects of environmental degradation or change where this influences human health or welfare, for example, in flooding exacerbated by global warming. But this remains a theological ethic that is essentially anthropocentric” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, pp. 195-95.)

Paul encompasses the whole creation in the story of redemption!

These authors propose to go beyond this exclusively anthropocentric concern by reading such passages in the light of Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20, where Paul more “clearly encompasses the whole creation” in his story of redemption. More helpful, as we look to developing a message for Christians gathered in worship, we suggest, is to read it in the light of today’s Gospel. This scripture supplies the missing kenotic and eschatological dimensions of the narrative of Jesus’ life that provide for the inclusion of the whole of creation as a proper object of Christian ethical concern.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday August 21-27 in Year A (Ormseth)

The Best Title for Jesus?  He is the Lord and Servant of Creation! Dennis Ormseth reflects on who the Gospel of Matthew tells us Jesus is.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 21-27, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Who do you say I am? The Lord and Servant of Creation.

“But who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus of his disciples in the Gospel for this Sunday after Pentecost. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” his disciple Simon Peter answers. Our own response to Jesus’ question, based on the readings we have given to the lections thus far in Year A, is this: “Jesus is the Lord, the Servant of creation.” We have argued for the validity of this new title for Jesus through a now rather extended commentary on those lections. In our comment on the readings for The Holy Trinity we summarized our reflections towards that conclusion, and we would refer our readers to that comment for the substance of our argument.

Peter’s answer raises the question of the validity of our answer anew, however. Because the title of “Messiah” tends to evoke for the Christian reader a rather high Christology, our answer may seem to have less than a clear claim to be revealed by Jesus’ “Father in heaven.” It is, perhaps, more like those answers the disciples reported “people” were giving, answers derived no doubt from “flesh and blood,” which Warren Carter suggests, “denotes the human situation before God, . . . as the inability to know God and God’s ways. It underlines the limitations of ‘human intellectual, religious and mystical capacities’ before God” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 56).

 We acknowledge such limitations! It can be noted, however, that contrary to conventional views, there was in fact “no standard expectation of a messiah, nor did every Jew look for a special anointed figure.” Use of the term, Carter insists, rather “raises a question. For what special task or role has God anointed or designated Jesus?” An answer is given early in the Gospel: “He will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). But it takes the entire gospel to develop fully what this disarmingly simple answer actually entails. The account of Peter’s confession can accordingly be seen as a “summary scene” that “restates the central issue” as it relates to the narrative of Jesus’ story at the end of the third block of Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 11:2-16:20): “Have people been able to discern from Jesus’ ministry that he is God’s Christ, the one anointed to manifest God’s salvation and empire (cf. Mt 11:2-6)” (Ibid., p. 332).

It seems clear that while “the people” do not see in Jesus “the Christ,” the disciples do. On the other hand, it is not clear that the disciples know what the actual role of this Messiah is. At the conclusion of his commentary on this section of Matthew, Carter cautions that “as the unfolding narrative will show, the disciples do not yet fully understand what Jesus is commissioned to do” (Ibid., p. 337). Carter has reference, of course, to Jesus’ announcement that “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Mt 16:21), part of the Gospel reading for next Sunday. But without anticipating what that will mean for our answer, how can we presume to know more than the disciples do at this point? How legitimate is it for us to make the claim we do? What really could we know about what it means to “manifest God’s salvation and empire,” in Carter’s phrase?

What is Jesus’ mission? To be shepherd to Israel.

For Carter, an answer to this question begins to emerge from careful analysis of the context of Jesus’ mission. The setting of this Sunday’s gospel narrative, we are immediately informed in v. 13, is “the district of Caesarea Philippi.” Carter comments on this information as follows: “The scene is set . . . some twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee south of Mt. Hermon.  G. W. Nickelsburg notes it as a place of revelation and commission. . . , important elements of this scene. The site had been a shrine for the god Pan, god of flocks and shepherds (Josephus, Ant 15.363-64).” In Carter’s view, this information should remind us that Matthew has already told us that Jesus is also to be known as a shepherd of his people.

The one who shepherds/governs my people Israel (see Mt 2:6), who has compassion for the crowds as sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36; Ezek 34), who is sent to the lost sheep of Israel (Mt 15:24), and who sends his disciples on a similar mission (Mt 10:6), the son of the shepherd David who manifests God’s reign among the marginal (Mt 9:27; 12:23; 15:22) is again recognized as God’s commissioned agent (Carter, p.332).

In this perspective, therefore, Jesus would be an alternative shepherd for the people. Thus is introduced a metaphor for the interpretation of Jesus’ role that we have seen to have considerable significance for our understanding of him within the community of his followers as “The Lord, the Servant of creation.” If Jesus is “the Messiah;” he is also “the good shepherd.”  Do the “people” see this? No, and neither, strictly speaking, do the disciples. This is not necessarily what the title “Messiah” would have meant to them. But for the reader of the Gospel of Matthew who knows the territory and its culture, Jesus’ presence there nonetheless sets up the possibility for “discovery” of this meaning.

As shepherd to his people, Jesus restores people and land!

This proposal regarding Jesus as shepherd gives rise to further difficulty for our answer to Jesus’ question, however. In our comment on the lections for Good Shepherd Sunday, we suggested “the complex of relations brought to mind by [Jesus’] metaphor [of the shepherd] is incomplete without the lived-in context of the creation that shepherd and sheep share. A people or a community, centered on and founded by Jesus, the servant of creation, will flourish in the context of a creation that, especially in view of the resurrection, is being restored.”  The first reading assigned for this Sunday actually amplifies this expectation: “For the Lord will comfort Zion,” the prophet writes; “he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isa 51:3). As the Servant of God, Jesus would do what God would do; God, this lesson insists, restores not only the people but also the land to which they are returned. And the Messiah, the commissioned agent of God, will work to effect this restoration.  God’s salvation includes the restoration, we might say, of the shepherd’s pasture.

But is such restoration a real possibility within the territory that Jesus now enters? How can it happen, in view of the fact that there is also another claimant to lordship over this very same territory? And this is something that both the people and the disciples had to know, since it obviously was a matter of ‘flesh and blood.” The location of Caesarea Philippi, Carter notes, “also underlines the issue of sovereignty.” The name of the city reflects its involvement with imperial power. King Herod built a marble temple there in honor of Augustus . . . Philip enlarged the city and named it Caesarea . . . Agrippa enlarged it further and renamed it Neronias in honor of the emperor Nero . . . After Jerusalem fell (70 C.E.), Titus visited the city, and “many” Jewish captives were thrown to wild beasts or forced to fight each other. . . Its names, buildings (typically using local wealth [taxes and levies], labor, and materials), activities, and history attest Rome’s claims and power (Carter, p. 332).

Even in land “ruled” by the Roman Empire, the shepherd comes to restore the land.

Is it not then quite astonishing that it is in precisely this place that a disciple of Jesus first names him “Messiah”? On the contrary, as it is precisely in the face of this difficulty that, as Carter observes, God’s purposes for Jesus and his followers are affirmed, purposes which contest Rome’s claims that Jupiter determines human affairs, that history is under Rome’s control, and that the emperor is the channel for the god’s blessing and presence . . . Jesus, not Rome, is the agent of God’s purposes, which will ultimately be triumphant (Ibid.)

The pasture over which this shepherd watches, to follow through the implications of our metaphor, is the very territory that the Roman army has violated and laid waste in its imperial conquest. Even into such a place the one who is Christ comes to restore the creation.

But again, how could it ever actually be accomplished? The confession made by Peter does actually suggest how this will happen, perhaps beyond his own understanding. Jesus is, after all, the Messiah, the agent of God. And more precisely, he is “the Son of the living God.” This is perhaps the more decisive claim, in our view, as it begins to fill out the role of the Messiah by suggesting the source and purposes of his work. Carter helpfully explains the meaning of this second part of Peter’s confession:

As the living God, or God of life (Deut 5:26; Josh 3:10; 1 Sam 17:26, 36, @ Kgs 19:4, 16; Pss 42:2; 84:2; Hos 1:10; Dan 6:20), God is creative, active, faithful, and just.  As God’s son/child or agent, Jesus expresses this life in his words and healings, feedings, exorcisms, and so on (cf. 11:2-6), and in creating a community that participates in God’s empire. To recognize Jesus as God’s agent confirms that he, not the emperor, manifests God’s purposes (Ibid., p.333).

Christians are a “Community that participates in God’s empire.”

Hence, the things that Jesus has been doing in the Gospel readings for the Sundays after Pentecost are precisely the kind of actions we would expect of the Messiah, if we understand his work as the Servant’s service to God’s creation. 

Is such a reading legitimate?  Much of this, to be sure, we are reading into the text. We read it into the text from diverse sources: from the first lesson, from the scholar’s careful reading of the entire Gospel in the light of what he or she knows about the cultural context, and from the creation–interested agenda of Christians concerned with care of creation. We think it appropriate to engage the text in this manner, first of all, because given the nature of these resources, together they constitute an apt proposal regarding his interaction with the historical context provided by Matthew’s narrative. But equally important, especially considering that this reading takes place within the context of the Christian assembly for worship, we think it conforms to what Jesus himself anticipates will happen with Peter’s confession. It builds on that confession, as Carter puts it, to create “a community that participates in God’s empire.”

Peter’s confession is the “rock.”

The exchange between Peter and Jesus takes a surprising turn here: Having acknowledged the divine inspiration of Peter’s confession, Jesus goes on to say, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). Jesus shifts their focus from his own identity to that of Peter, and to the role that Peter and the other disciples will have in the future. 

This shift turns on the introduction of a new metaphor, that of “the rock.”  Quickly sorting the alternative interpretations of this much controverted saying, Carter takes Jesus’ reference to be “Peter’s faith or confession in 16:16,” albeit as embodied in the person of Peter as “the representative of every Christian,” (passing over the alternatives of “Christ” and “Peter the model bishop”) (Ibid., p. 334). But in the assembly this Sunday, hearers of the Gospel will catch the allusion to Isaiah 51:1 from the first lesson, for the sake of which, we surmise, the church has brought this lesson into juxtaposition to the Gospel. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug,” says the prophet. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.” Here “the rock” is the founding couple of Israel and their faith.  And what does one see by looking to them? As we already noted above, we see the prophet’s promise that the Lord “will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord.”

To be sure, the prophet spoke in a different time and place.  But as we noted above, he spoke about what God does, and this is what the congregation will attend to. In addition, what God does, the Messiah, God’s commissioned agent, would surely also do, when and where the situation demanded it. The good shepherd attends to the needs of his sheep where they are at pasture. Does “the district of Caesarea Philippi” represent such a situation? We can’t say for sure, of course. But we can say with some confidence that Jesus himself would not contradict that possibility. His focus here is more general, but his intention is clear: Through the faith of Peter and his other disciples, Jesus will work to effect all such purposes as are consonant with the will of God for God’s empire wherever they may be called to do so.

As Carter adroitly observes, Jesus’ response quickly moves the conversation to a new levels, first political and then cosmic. On the rock of Peter’s confession of him as Messiah, he says, he will build his ecclesia. The word “ecclesia,” Carter insists, refers to more than we commonly understand as a religious community. “Frequently overlooked,” he notes, “is the observation that the term ekklesia is used in the political sphere. It denotes the ‘duly summoned’ . . .civic and political assembly of citizens in Greek cities which along with a council (the boule’) expressed the will of the assembled people (demos).  . . The assembly is not primarily cultic but political, social, cultural.  It gathers to reinforce and administer the status quo under Roman control. As R. A. Horsley notes in discussing Paul’s use of this term, by claiming the same name, the community centered on Jesus exists in ‘pointed juxtaposition’ and ‘competition’ with the official city assembly. . .(as) an alternative society to the Roman imperial order. . . rooted in the history of Israel, in opposition to Pax Romana. In God’s guidance of human affairs, history, which had been running through Israel and not through Rome,” continues in this counter society with its alternative commitment and practices (Ibid., p. 335).

The lesson is a message directed to creation itself!

In this light, the significance of the linkage between the gospel and the first lesson for our concern for care of creation grows. The “alternative commitment and practices” could certainly include, with full legitimacy, such activities as will further God’s will to “comfort all (Zion’s) waste places” and to “make her wilderness like Eden her desert like the garden of the Lord.”

Carol J. Dempsey makes note of this possibility in commenting on the first lesson: “Embedded in this text,” she writes, “is a message to the natural world as well. When Israel was redeemed from exile, the people were also restored to their land, which itself was restored to life after the ravages of the battles it endured. God’s words that promise restoration to Jerusalem’s waste places and deserts need to be heard by all environmentalists today working for the care, preservation, and restoration of the earth.  Indeed God is at work in their activity and their work is a sign of God’s saving grace in our midst” (Dempsey, ‘Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost / Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time,’ in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, p. 176).

The church has a mandate to care for creation

While we agree with Dempsey, we would restate her affirmation of care of creation much more broadly to include the whole community of the church. “Working for the care, preservation, and restoration of the earth” is something not only those who identify themselves as environmentalists do; consequent to our reading is commitment to such work as essential to the mandate of the community built on the rock of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah. It is an important aspect of what those disciples are to “bind and loose” on earth, on behalf of the Father who is in heaven. As they work to understand and do “what God’s reign requires as declared by the scriptures and interpreted not by the religious leaders . . .but by Jesus, and by Peter and the disciples . . .all disciples are entrusted with the task of proclaiming and manifesting God’s empire (10:7-8)” (Ibid., p. 337). Because of the situation and condition of the Earth today, it is, we believe, part and parcel of what all Jesus’ followers are called out to do together, as Jesus’ ecclesia for our time and place.

The potential consequences of such action are, Jesus promises, cosmic:  “the gates of Hades will not prevail against” the work of the community so constituted and committed. “The phrase the gates of Hades,” Carter points out, “is metonymy in which a part (gates) refers to the whole realm of Hades. . . Hades, associated with the dead, contains the demons and evil spirits of death and destruction . . . Hades attacks Jesus’ community (as the rock is attacked in Mt 7:24-27; cf. 14:24). The gates of Hades open to let the attacking demons out. . . This attack is part of the eschatological woes which disciples experience as they conduct their mission before Jesus’ return.  . . . In Matthew 13:24-30, 38-39 the opposition comes from the devil. It can take all sorts of forms: domestic (Mt 10:21-22), and religious and social (Mt 10:17; 16:21), cultural (Mt 13:21-22), and political, since the devil claims control of the nations (Mt 4:8; cf. 10:17-18). But Jesus promises that this diabolical opposition will not prevail against the community centered on Jesus (Mt 13:36-43) (Ibid., p. 335).

Environmentalists: Your work is not in vain!!

Discouraged and pessimistic environmentalists, take note: Your work is not in vain. Heed the admonition of the Apostle Paul to the congregation in Rome, living in the shadow of the Empire’s capital: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). Working together, thinking “with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned,” we will see the creation through its crisis in the good company of “the Lord, the Servant of Creation.” But there is also this: With Jesus’ promise, comes this cautionary word in next Sunday’s Gospel: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Christian care of creation comes with sacrifice.

Who do you say I am? The Lord and Servant of Creation.

What is Jesus’ mission? To be shepherd to Israel.

As shepherd to his people, Jesus restores people and land!

Even in land “ruled” by the Roman Empire, the shepherd comes to restore the land.

Christians are a “Community that participates in God’s empire.”

The lesson is a message directed to creation itself!

 The church has a mandate to care for creation

 Environmentalists: Your work is not in vain!!

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday August 14-20 in Year A (Ormseth)

If we are to address Earth-care together, no nation can claim privileged exceptionalism. Dennis Ormseth  reflects on a global scope for the vision of well-being.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 14-20, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

Constructing political agreements to address on a global scale the degradation of the earth’s ecology is proving to be a nearly insurmountable challenge. As James Gustave Speth writes in an “anatomy of failure” of global environmental governance, environmental deterioration “is driven by powerful underlying forces; it requires far-reaching international responses; and the political base to support these measures tends to be weak and scattered.” These forces are quickly identified: “the steady expansion of human populations, the routine deployment of inappropriate technologies, the near universal aspiration for affluence and high levels of consumption, and the widespread unwillingness to correct the failures of the unaided market.” But the strategies needed to deal with these forces are very difficult to put in place. They need to be far-reaching and complex: new energy policies, new transportation strategies, changes in agriculture and the management of forests around the world. The required actions “demand international cooperation on a scale seldom achieved” (Speth, pp. 98-99).

The politics of such cooperation are exceedingly difficult: the issues are increasingly complex and difficult to understand; the impacts are remote or difficult to perceive; they concern future problems more than current ones, and problems that may be felt more immediately by other people in other places rather than close to home; and the problems tend to be chronic rather than acute. The political institutions needed for sustained and effective action are rarely strong enough. Economic needs regularly trump the needs of the environment. The wealthy global North protects its world dominance over against the poorer South. And particularly problematic is the persistence of the government of the United States in its arrogant attitude of exceptionalism, which undergirds a “pattern of unilateralism and of staying outside the multilateral system unless we need it—a la carte multilateralism” (Speth, pp.98 – 99, 107-11)

Can Christian churches contribute to the effort to meet this immense and daunting set of challenges? Without addressing specific issues identified by Speth, the lectionary lessons for this Sunday nonetheless point to resources within the tradition for helping the world deal with important, perhaps even crucial, aspects of them. The readings evince a powerful determination on the part of God to overcome the divisions that separate peoples from each other and work against their mutual well-being. Psalm 67, for example, reminds us that God’s people are to pray that God’s “way may be known upon earth, [God’s] saving power among all nations” (67:2; our emphasis). There is global scope to the vision of well-being for which we commonly pray, as in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

Furthermore, the challenge of bridging divisions between peoples is clearly addressed in the lesson from Isaiah 56; through the prophet, God promises to gather “the outcasts of Israel” and “others . . . besides those already gathered” (56:8). To the “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these,” the prophet promises on behalf of God, “I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer.” Interpreted in terms of the mission of Jesus, the Lord, the Servant of Creation, this promise means that those who minister to God and act as God’s servants will be co-servants with him in serving creation. Together with these strangers the people of God already gathered embrace the restoration of creation adumbrated in Jesus’ ministry: keeping the Sabbath rest, which encompasses all creatures in God’s own shalom, they join his ascent of the “holy mountain,” which is to say that, the representative ecology in which God, the creation, and the servants of creation are brought together in prayers of joyful praise and thanksgiving. “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (56:7).

In the Gospel reading for the day we see how such promises might actually begin to be realized. The encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman offers a vision of how such deep divisions that prohibit the healing of creation might be overcome. Warren Carter describes the situation as follows:

Just as Jesus “came out” or left one place (Mt 15:21), the woman also “came out.” They meet in an unspecified “nowhere” place in the boundary region of Galilee and Tyre-Sidon, the interface of Jewish and Gentile territory. It is a place of tension and prejudice: Josephus declares  “the Tyrians are our bitterest enemies” (Con Ap 1.70), and there were clashes between Tyrians and Jews in the 60s (JW 2.478). Along with ethnic conflict, there are competing religious understandings (Israel is God’s chosen people), economic needs (the urban centers Tyre and Sidon require food from rural areas), and political goals. Tyrian political aspirations for further territory and resentment of Roman rule ran high. Josephus notes that many followers of John of Gischala, who revolted against Rome, came from ‘the region of Tyre” (JW 2.5888; cf. Vita 372). The woman comes not from the cities of Tyre or Sidon but from that region, suggesting perhaps her poverty as a rural peasant (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 321-22).

Thus, in her appeal to Jesus as he enters the conflicted territory that separates her people from Jesus’ people, the woman confronts many of the complex factors that render political accommodation of any kind difficult, today no less than in the first century: rival populations struggle for control of contested territories and the resources they contain; the power and prerogatives of empire trump local concerns; and the resort to military power to guarantee access to material resources adds to the people’s sense of vulnerability and hopelessness. And figuring most prominently in their exchange is the challenge of the imperialistic ideology of Israel that, astonishingly, seems in the first instance to be even Jesus’ own point of deep resistance to her appeal.

Nevertheless, the woman draws on virtues she intuitively knows she can depend on for the response she seeks from Jesus: she cries out persistently, as in prayer, to one she acknowledges as Lord and son of David, challenging, as Carter puts it, “Jesus’ very identity and mission.” Her petition squarely confronts the ideology implied by that mission:

“her request has challenged his ideology of chosenness, which restricts his mission and his disciples mission to Israel. In the tradition of Abraham, she demands her share in God’s blessing for all the world (15:29-39; 1:1-2). Her request protests an excluding focus on Israel and reclaims her place as a Canaanite and a Gentile in God’s purposes” (Ibid., p. 323.)

When Jesus persists in his resistance she matches him with both wit and courage. In the crux of their exchange, so offensive to contemporary ears attuned to politically correct standards of speech, he supplies a metaphor that provides an impetus to transcend their conflict.” It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says. “Why does he use a food metaphor when she has not asked for food?” Carter astutely asks, and observes:

“Bread or food has also been an issue in two previous stories (12:7-8; 15:1-20) that have involved conflict between traditions and God’s will. Here the struggle concerns whether Jesus will be bound by cultural and historical conventions in resisting this woman from around Tyre and Sidon (see 15:21-22), or understand that faithfulness to his commission to manifest God’s saving reign does not violate Israel’s priority if he extends the reign to Gentiles. Food, then, is a metaphor for God’s empire or salvation (1:21, 23; 4:17)” (Ibid., p. 324).

So while his comment persists in maintaining “the status quo of ethnic, cultural, religious, gender, and political division, her response lays claim to his metaphor for her own cause: “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Thus, she reaches out

“beyond these barriers to possibilities that are faithful to God’s promises to bless all the nations of the earth (Gen 12:1-13). Without questioning the priority of the children (Israel), and while recognizing the authority of the masters, she reframes the significance of dogs (Gentiles). It is not a matter of food or no food (Jesus’ alternative), but food for both. . . . She demands a place at the table, not under it.”

What Carter calls attention to is the relationship between a master of the household and its domestic animals. Not only the children of the household receive the master’s care; the animals belong to the household as well, and cannot be denied the food that is appropriate to them. And, we note, this wild metaphorical stratagem of the woman triumphs!

Jesus has a name for her persistence: “Woman, great is your faith!” he exclaims. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” Indeed, the narrative has made the greatness of her faith very clear; she has overcome every obstacle. But it is important to see precisely what that faith is. It is clearly not faith in Jesus as the one who delivers special privilege and power to Israel among the nations, or, for that matter, to Christian believers. It is rather a faith in the gracious mercy of God that transcends all such “ethnic, gender, religious, political, and economic barriers.” And even more: we would suggest that her metaphor expresses a faith that overcomes the commonly assumed division between humans and their animal companions. Here, we might say, is faith in God as the creator of all who provides food for all. Her appeal is to a God for whom, in the vivid image of the woman’s plea, dogs are as welcome at the family table as are the children!

The implication for people of faith in the context of contemporary care of creation is clear: in the face of this woman’s faith in the God of all creation, whose healing servant she recognized in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the exceptionalist ideology of Israel or any other nation falls away. For this God, there is no barrier to restoration of all creation. This truth comes hard to Americans or citizens of any nation who expect from the rest of the world subservience to their unilateralist conceptions of fairness and justice. To embrace such faith can be painfully difficult, and especially so for those who have taken special pride in being recipients of God’s salvation. Indeed, in the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we see how painful this recognition was for even the great apostle of justifying faith. God, he acknowledges, has given everything to his people, and yet he must relinquish their exclusive claim in favor of God’s transcendent compassion and all-inclusive mercy. Even Jesus would seem to give up his people’s privileged status with great reluctance.

So we should not be surprised that it comes with great difficulty for a nation such as ours, so wonderfully blessed as America has been in this place, to acknowledge other nations’ claims on ecological equity and justice. Nor, for that matter, for the human species in relationship to the needs of the rest of God’s creation.  The woman transformed Jesus’ understanding of his mission in relationship to the purposes of God; who will change ours, so that the creation God so loves can be truly and finally restored?  The Christian community has this transformation of perspective and orientation to offer the nations of the world, in their quest for policies that address the dreadful reality of our degradation of God’s creation, with both compassion and justice for all.

 Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com